TAMPA — Sheila Cunningham had just arrived home from work when her ex-husband called from Illinois with bad news about their oldest son, Curtis Jr.
"He said Junior's been hurt," Cunningham recalled. "I said okay, where's he at, I'll go to the hospital, and he said no you can't. I said what do you mean I can't, and he said he's been shot."
Then Cunningham realized what he had been trying to say, that her 33-year-old son Curtis was already gone, fatally shot during an early morning altercation with several teens outside a home in Tampa Heights.
Whoever pulled the trigger helped push the city of Tampa toward a grim statistic: 39 people were slain in 2017, the most in nearly 15 years, and 27 of them were African-Americans.
The list includes the Seminole Heights murders last fall that left four people dead, and the two roommates police say were killed in New Tampa by a self-described former neo-Nazi for mocking his conversion to Islam..
One encouraging data point and a troubling one emerge from the list. Homicides involving rival neighborhood groups, the kind that fueled a spike in homicides in 2015, are down. Killings involving drugs have increased, however, prompting the department to take a fresh approach to drug-involved crimes.
"When we look at homicides, we look to see if there's a pattern," Chief Brian Dugan said. "Is there a common denominator there and is there something that we as a system can do to prevent them?"
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Ask Dugan about Tampa's homicide numbers — a spike not seen outside the city limits, in Hillsborough or Pinellas counties — and he's quick to point out that overall crime rates in the city continue to fall, mirroring state and national trends.
The number of violent crimes in Tampa in 2017 fell about 6 percentage points from the previous year, to 1,432, according to department data provided in mid-December. Offenses involving firearms ticked up a few percentage points, to 573. Of the 39 homicides, 35 involved guns.
"Tampa is a much safer city than when I started," said Dugan, who joined the department in 1990, when the city was still feeling the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic. "But how do you get that point across when we just had a serial killer or serial shooter or whatever you want to label him in Seminole Heights? That terror seeped into other parts of the city."