Turn on prime-time television any night of the week and it’s likely you’ll find a show about a cold case murder. The program will feature an intrepid detective or two who dig in and — voila! — solve the most perplexing cases.
The reality, however, is very different. Statistics reveal that more than 40 percent of the time, murderers in the United States get away with it, a chilling thought because those who kill without detection can become emboldened and are, of course, free to kill again.
Statisticians keep a running tally of what’s called the “murder clearance rate” to determine how many cases are solved each year. Included in the count are those cases that end with an arrest or the identification of suspects who can’t be apprehended for whatever reason (e.g. they fled the jurisdiction; they are deceased). According to the latest figures, the U.S. murder clearance rate now stands at its lowest level since the FBI first began tracking such figures.
Translated? Every year, thousands of murders occur in America for which no one is held accountable.
It takes time for murder investigations to evolve and statistics to be gathered, so the latest murder clearance rate numbers come from 2016. That year, according to the FBI, there were an estimated 17,250 murders, and only 59.4 percent were solved.
And the Murder Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that digs deep into these statistics with the help of the Freedom of Information Act, reports that the national clearance rate for murders has been going down steadily since 1965. Not a good trend.
Solving murder cases has been especially hard in big cities with serious gang activity. Detroit police were able to clear just 15 percent of its murder cases in 2016. Chicago posted a dismal clearance rate of 26 percent. New Orleans was only slightly better that year, solving just 28 percent of its homicide cases. Law enforcement in Memphis, Tenn., found the guilty in just 38 percent of cases. Think about how many families across the country will never know who took their loved ones’ lives.
Why are murder cases so frequently so difficult to solve? Leaders in police and sheriff’s departments and prosecutor’s and mayor’s offices cite several reasons. At the top of all their lists is the reluctance of eyewitnesses to come forward because of the “snitches get stiches” mantra so often heard in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. Also standing in the way is the lack of police manpower. In many cities, retiring detectives are not readily replaced either for budgetary reasons or there simply being fewer recruits coming up the ranks to fill the positions. As public attacks on law enforcement have increased, police academies are finding much fewer recruits signing up. Some report that class sizes are down 80 percent and even 90 percent.
Eyewitness fears were so serious in Indianapolis, for example, that half of the victims who survived gunshots refused to tell police who shot them. Last September, 13-year-old Matthew McGee was shot and killed in a fast-food restaurant parking lot, and none of the 10 young people who witnessed the crime would speak to police. In response, Indianapolis established a witness-protection fund to help shield those who can provide important testimony.
In Boston, a city that saw its clearance rate dip below 50 percent, it was decided to stagger detective shifts so that more were assigned to the weekends when the number of murders often rise. They also made a point of immediately interviewing more witnesses at the scene of the crime and gathering more evidence to send to the Boston crime lab.
It is well established that police investigations are most fruitful in the crucial 48 hours after the crime, so immediately pouring more manpower and attention on a crime scene just makes sense. So does proactive policing focused on those neighborhoods where most of the violent crimes take place.
It’s a sad fact that too few people who live in the most violence-prone neighborhoods are willing to stand up and report gang members who commit so many of these unsolved murders. Citizens need to understand that yelling for justice is not enough. Police cannot pursue perpetrators unless they know who they are. And city leaders need to understand the absolute terror eyewitnesses face, do more to gain their trust and institute rock-solid programs to protect them.
Criminologist Peter Scharf with Louisiana State University has worked with the New Orleans police department and warns of the terrible cycle that’s been created.
“With every one of these weekends where you see multiple killed and even more wounded and few arrested,” he said, “the gangs become more emboldened and the witnesses weaker in their conviction to step up.”
He calls our murder clearance rate a “national disaster.” I’d have to agree. Now, what are we going to do about it?
— Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.