I hear the complaint all the time. Different people, same lament: A loved one is killed, another victim of the city's endless number of homicides, but they can't get in touch with the detective on the case.

They call. They leave a message. Sometimes they get a call back. Often, they say, it takes a lot longer than it should.

And over breakfast at Philadelphia's homicide unit the other morning, the reason for that resided in an old wooden box, full of pink "While You Were Out" notes. Maybe, if you're of a certain age, you remember them. Maybe you've seen them in an old movie, or a flea market.

The breakfast was hosted by the National Homicide Justice Alliance, started by the parents of Alex Rojas-Garcia, a father of two who was gunned down in 2015.

For two years now, the organization has gathered detectives and families of murder victims so they can get to know each other, but also in hopes of improving access. Unsaid, to maybe get their phone calls returned faster.

Many of the family members sharing coffee and bagels hadn't had much interaction with the detectives, beyond the meeting right after their loved one was killed.

Yullio Robbins was different. She stood close, protectively even, to the detective working her son's murder case, Detective Gregory Santamala. The two talk regularly, mostly about how witnesses aren't saying anything about the summer day in 2016 that her 28-year-old son was killed in broad daylight, so close to someone that they overheard him beg for his life.

But Robbins has faith in God, and in her detective. That's what she calls him.

Pictured in the blue shirt is Yullio Robbins whose son was killed in 2016 and behind her, the homicide detective working on the case, Gregory Santamala.
Helen Ubinas / Staff
Pictured in the blue shirt is Yullio Robbins whose son was killed in 2016 and behind her, the homicide detective working on the case, Gregory Santamala.

And one day, she says, with no doubt in her voice, "my detective will call me and tell me we got the person who did this."

"One day my James will get his justice."

It was a good showing, more than a dozen family members who looked a little sad and more than a little surprised at the conditions the men and women charged with finding killers worked under. Each side was able to consider the frustrations of the other, the cops with not enough time or tools at their disposal, the relatives left with nothing but time to consider what could have been.

Homicide Unit Lt. Norman Davenport led them in prayer. Aleida Garcia, Rojas-Garcia's mother, presented the unit with a plaque of appreciation.

"If I had all the money in the world, I can never pay back the homicide unit, specifically the detectives that helped to find the killer in my son's case because that's how much I value their work and what they did," Garcia said.

I'd heard and read the stories about the cramped, dingy unit, on the second floor of the building on Seventh and Race that everyone calls the Roundhouse. Stuck in time, where nothing's changed in decades, save for maybe a coat of paint. Where detectives have long joked, in old newspaper clippings, that not even the roaches have a place to hide. Where rusty, crusty file cabinets with stickers that read "Radioactive" are jammed next to first-come, first-serve desks meant to accommodate the 70 or so detectives. A shortage of seats, a wealth of bad coffee.

Whatever doesn't fit in the file cabinets goes into banker's boxes. Somewhere a box was missing its lid, borrowed to block the sun from computer screens.

But nothing spoke more of a city strapped for cash and technology as loudly as that scratched-up wooden box full of urgent pink message slips.

The Philadelphia Homicide Unit detectives don’t have voice mail on their desk phones. They also don’t have department issued cell phones, but they do have a box where messages are taken on dated “While You Were Out” notepads.
Helen Ubiñas / Staff
The Philadelphia Homicide Unit detectives don’t have voice mail on their desk phones. They also don’t have department issued cell phones, but they do have a box where messages are taken on dated “While You Were Out” notepads.

Incredibly, detectives don't have department-issued cell phones, and while many share their numbers freely, when messages come into the department they are jotted down on these sheets of paper, waded through when the detectives come in from the streets or court or all-night shifts after catching a case.

It took until 2012 to give all police employees email accounts. Still, there is a tinge of nostalgia about the box.

It was there all through Police Commissioner Richard Ross' two tours in homicide. With a budget that goes mostly to personnel, Ross said, tough decisions must be made. Supervisors have department-issued phones; maybe one day every police officer will have one too.

At the very least, their offices will look better once the department is relocated to the former Inquirer building on North Broad, a move planned for 2020.

The desk phones will, fingers crossed, have voice mail. Maybe the homicide detectives will finally get department-issued cell phones.

Until then, there's the box, and the pink notes, and loved ones waiting for a call back.