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In St. Petersburg, families of murder victims want updates from police

Melinda Brown’s brother Clifford was killed in May 2009. She wants to know the progress of the investigation, but those updates go to another relative who does not pass along the news.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Melinda Brown’s brother Clifford was killed in May 2009. She wants to know the progress of the investigation, but those updates go to another relative who does not pass along the news.

ST. PETERSBURG — Standing before the City Council last year, an upset Robert Gordon begged to know why police would not return calls about the case of his son Jabar McNair, shot and burned to death a year earlier.

In response, police Chief Chuck Harmon stood up at the February 2009 meeting and made a sweeping promise.

"Our policy is changed as of today," Harmon said. "At least once a month at the family's request we will call and provide an update."

It hasn't always worked out that way for Gordon's family and others.

The policy written in response to Harmon's promise covers only the first year after a homicide.

It doesn't apply to Gordon because his son had been dead for a year at the time he complained.

Gordon is still unhappy. He got calls for three or four months after his son's death. Then, nothing.

"We feel that we were forgotten," Gordon said last week. "We feel like other cases are more important to them than my son's case."

Other families are getting regular updates, according to call logs provided by police.

Last year, Harmon created a cold case unit to focus more energy on unsolved cases. New technologies such as advanced DNA analysis and fingerprint databases have enabled police to solve cases from the 1970s.

But those techniques can take months and frustrate families with lingering questions like Gordon's.

Assistant Chief David DeKay said families sometimes misinterpret the long wait times and lack of information as lack of interest.

"Sometimes things don't happen as fast as the families would like, so they think we're not doing anything," DeKay said. "So we call to reassure them and make sure there's no unnecessary burden on families with these kinds of feelings.

"It can be frustrating for the families when that call might be, 'We have nothing for you.' "

Other factors can complicate getting information into the hands of family members, DeKay said. Some families move away or don't want updates at all. Sometimes members of families in mourning don't talk to one another.

Police try to establish one person in the family who can disseminate information to other members.

In most cases, this eliminates the kind of confusion that has frustrated the family of 30-year-old Clifford E. Brown.

Brown was fatally shot in May. His sister Melinda Brown said months would go by before she heard from detectives.

The Brown case is of three unsolved homicides from last year and more than 90 since 1980.

For Brown's family, which lives in St. Petersburg, the police investigation has been a whirlwind of misinformation and lack of adequate communication with detectives working on the case.

The main contact person for police has been Clifford Brown's biological mother, who does not speak to Melinda Brown and her three sisters and two brothers.

For their side of the family, the lack of information has led to distrust and loss of faith in the Police Department.

"Nobody's giving us any answers. It's very frustrating," Melinda Brown said. "I wish they'd at least call and let us know they're still working on it to give us some type of closure."

Tania Karas can be reached at tkaras@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

In St. Petersburg, families of murder victims want updates from police 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 1:03am]

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