Sushila S. Maharaj has waited 31/2 years for East Palo Alto police to catch the person who shot her husband, Parma Nand Maharaj, to death while he repaired their garage door.

But if the department's rate of arresting killers over the past six years is any indication, her wait is likely to continue. East Palo Alto police solved just 31 percent of homicides in their city from 2006-2012.

That leaves it nearly tied with Richmond for the lowest rate among the 14 Bay Area cities that recorded the most killings in that period, according to this newspaper's review of FBI crime data. And it's far below the national average of 62.5 percent.

The data also shows low "clearance rates" in Oakland, which solved about 35 percent of its killings and the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, with 41 percent.

On the other hand, San Pablo solved 92 percent of its homicides, Antioch 79 percent and San Jose 67 percent.

A combined 1,216 killings, about 55 percent of the total in those 14 Bay Area communities from 2006-2012, remain unsolved, the data shows.

"Everyday I think about it, whether it will be solved or not. It's always in my mind, whatever I do," Maharaj said through tears. "People don't understand when they do such a thing, how the family suffers and the pain they go through every day."


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Homicide rates have been falling for decades, leaving killings that are increasingly hard to crack, experts say. But that change alone doesn't account for the yawning gaps among Bay Area police departments' clearance rates.

Experts and police say the differences can be explained by budgets and staffing, which departments can't control, but also factors that can be improved, like detectives' ability to get witnesses to talk and their relationships with their communities. None of this is any solace to the families of the victims, who keep hoping for an arrest.

"How many cases are they really investigating?" asked Francie Dows, whose godson Phat Le was slain in an Oakland shooting in October 2009. "How many homicides are they really, truly investigating and not just kind of writing off?"

Since the late 1980s, experts say, an increasing portion of homicide cases have involved the criminal underworld, as well as its accompanying code of silence and threat of retribution. That's an issue for police because one of the most important factors in solving a case is getting witnesses and the victim's loved ones to talk.

"It's a tough problem and there is only so much the police can do -- a witness has a right not to cooperate with the police," said professor Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology expert at University of Missouri-St. Louis. "None of this is to say that the police can't do a better job in their investigations."

The prevalence nationwide of underworld-related homicides holds true for Bay Area cities like East Palo Alto and Antioch seeing 80 to 95 percent of their slayings having ties to gangs, drugs or other criminal activities. In San Pablo, 77 percent of the homicides are connected to other crimes, yet detectives there have solved 92 percent of them -- far better than San Francisco police and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office.

One factor in San Pablo's success may be its less adversarial relationship with residents. When citizens believe police are brutal or unfair, they won't step forward to help, said Barry Krisberg, a crime expert and senior fellow at UC Berkeley's law school.

In contrast to the controversy seen in other cities, San Pablo residents did little to oppose the police department's move earlier this year to install more surveillance and license plate-recording cameras throughout town. In fact the City Council approved the initiative unanimously.

Oakland, Richmond and East Palo Alto, which have among the lowest rates of solving homicides, also have had highly publicized cases of officers charged with or convicted of on-duty brutality and other crimes in the past 20 years. Those incidents continue to dog the departments' reputations in the community.

On top of that, cities such as Oakland struggle with the twin pressures of fewer officers due to budget cuts during the Great Recession and high crime rates. Oakland had more robberies per capita in 2012 -- one per 91 residents -- than any other American city.

Oakland police Sgt. Mike Gantt said two homicide detectives at a time are responsible for investigating all slayings that happen in a given week. He said the 12-officer homicide unit has about half the manpower needed to investigate the more than 800 homicides from 2006 to 2012.

"When you got that many homicides and you got all those demands on you, something is going to slip through the cracks," Gantt said. "You hope you don't lose evidence or you may have missed something, missed a witness that you didn't talk to. Because you are basically running and gunning."

Though San Jose police have been sued for civil rights violations, residents seem willing to help. Lt. Michael Kihmm, head of San Jose's homicide unit, said crime is low enough that people feel they don't risk their lives by talking to detectives.

"In other communities there is a lot of fear to talk to the cops," Kihmm said. "I think because of our safety rate they can come forward."

But he pointed to other strengths, such as a generous overtime budget, that contribute to solving cases. The detectives in the unit are expected to work up to 90 hours a week when assigned to a new homicide. Like Oakland, San Jose -- which had 225 homicides from 2006 to 2012 -- has a 12-officer homicide unit, but it also has seven crime scene investigators.

Assisting them are about 48 specially trained patrol officers who can get to a homicide scene quickly and preserve evidence.

The Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office declined to talk to this newspaper about homicide clearance rates, but East Palo Alto and Richmond police say they work hard to improve the relationship with their communities and work against the "no snitching" street mentality. They've pushed anonymous tip lines and tried to forge tighter bonds with residents by sponsoring youth sports leagues and community forums. There is, however, only so much they can do, they said.

"As law enforcement we have a very specific role when it comes to dealing with gang members and people who are carrying guns and doing the most violent crimes," said Richmond police Capt. Mark Gagan. "But the power of the community to pull together and take the streets back themselves is actually more powerful than our influence."

East Palo Alto police Chief Ron Davis, who's since left for a job in Washington, said the efforts in his eight years as the town's top cop have built more trust with residents. But he admitted the work's not finished.

"We still have, I think, way too low clearance rates," he said. "Clearly there is a lot more that has to be done."

Meanwhile, Sushila Maharaj said she is in regular contact with police investigating her husband's 2010 killing. They are actively pursuing the case, she said, but no arrests have been made.