Every year in America, 6,000 killers get away with murder.
The percentage of homicides that go unsolved in the United States has risen alarmingly even as the homicide rate has fallen to levels last seen in the 1960s.
Despite dramatic improvements in DNA analysis and forensic science, police fail to make an arrest in more than one-third of all homicides. National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from about 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years.
The majority of homicides now go unsolved at dozens of big-city police departments, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of crime records provided by the FBI.
“This is very frightening,” said Bill Hagmaier, executive director of the International Homicide Investigators Association and retired chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. “We’d expect that — with more police officers, more scientific tools likes DNA analysis and more computerized records — we’d be clearing more homicides now.”
Nearly 185,000 killings went unsolved from 1980 to 2008.
Experts say that homicides are tougher to solve now because crimes of passion, where assailants are easier to identify, have been replaced by drug- and gang-related killings. Many police chiefs — especially in areas with rising numbers of unsolved crimes — blame a lack of witness cooperation.
The public is starting to notice.
“When my first son was killed, I was embarrassed and ashamed. Why did this happen to me? But when my second son died, I decided I’d had enough and wanted to be an advocate for murder victims,” said Valencia Mohammed, founder of Mothers of Unsolved Murders, in Washington, D.C.
Mohammed’s 14-year-old son, Said, was found shot to death in his bedroom in 1999. His elder brother, Imtiaz, 23, was shot to death along a city street in 2004, prompting Mohammed to demand a meeting with police officials.
“I asked, ‘How many unsolved murders do you have?’ They said 3,479 since 1969. That’s when I broke down. I was in tears. I said, ‘I know you guys are not going to solve these murders.’“
Police did catch Imtiaz’s killer four years after the killing, but Said’s homicide remains unsolved.
Some police departments solve most of their homicides, even the tough ones, while others have growing stacks of unsolved cases.
In 2008, police solved 35 percent of the homicides in Chicago, 22 percent in New Orleans and 21 percent in Detroit. Yet authorities solved 75 percent of the killings in Philadelphia, 92 percent in Denver and 94 percent in San Diego.
“We’ve concluded that the major factor is the amount of resources police departments place on homicide clearances and the priority they give to homicide clearances,” said University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford, who led a landmark study into how police can improve their murder investigations.
The Scripps study found enormous variation in the rates that homicides are cleared around the nation. The police departments with the most dramatic improvements made concerted and conscious efforts to change.
After homicide clearance rates in Philadelphia dropped to 56 percent in 2006, Mayor Michael Nutter declared a “crime emergency.”
He hired Charles Ramsey, former police chief in Washington, D.C., as police commissioner. Ramsey installed a fresh homicide supervisor, Capt. James Clark, who led a results-based oversight of murder investigations similar to total-quality management methods first employed by Japanese manufacturers.
“This is just like in any industry,” said Deputy Commissioner Richard Ross, a veteran Philadelphia homicide investigator and major-case supervisor. “If you don’t work a job, then it’s not coming in. That’s the saying around here. So we make our guys work the jobs.”
Philadelphia’s homicide clearance rate jumped to 75 percent in 2008.
The turnaround in Philadelphia has been repeated in several police departments, the Scripps study found.
“If police organizations say it’s unacceptable to have clearance rates of 50, 40, even 30 percent, then those rates will rise,” Wellford said. “They begin to institute smart policing in their homicide investigations.”
The nation’s biggest improvement, according to the Scripps study, was in Durham, N.C., where homicide clearances averaged only 39 percent in the 1990s following a dramatic increase in drug-related crime. But the solution rate rose to an average of 78 percent for the city’s 215 killings since 2000.
“This doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez.
“We will canvass door-to-door to see what information we can get. If necessary, we’ll get up to 100 officers knocking on doors,” Lopez said. “It’s civilians, police, even elected officials who come out so we can get more witnesses … witnesses we otherwise would never have gotten. And that builds more trust throughout the neighborhoods.”
While several departments have shown similar improvements, most have not. The average homicide solution rate during the last two decades fell in 63 of the nation’s 100 largest departments.
The departments in Flint, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio, suffered the worst declines in performance; the average homicide clearance rate fell more than 30 percent since the 1990s in both cities.
“Often we know with some degree of certainty who committed homicides but do not have sufficient witness cooperation needed for proof beyond a reasonable doubt in court,” said Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl.
Both cities suffered substantial declines in manpower, due to budget cuts. Since 1990, Flint dropped from 330 sworn officers to 185 while Dayton went from more than 500 to 394.
“That’s just part of the problem,” said Flint Police Chief Alvern Lock. “Witnesses don’t want to cooperate with police.”
But Lock said budget constraints have hurt.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d ask for more money so I could hire more officers. We just need more of everything.”
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