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U.S. Murder Clearance Rates Among Lowest in the World

by Matt Clarke

Statistically, U.S. law enforcement agencies are the worst crime solvers in the Western world. According to official data, there are arrests for about one-eighth of burglaries, about one-third of rapes, and about two-thirds of murders. But official methods of reporting can distort and exaggerate murder clearance rates, and the official clearance rate has held steady for three decades, despite strong declines in the rate murders are being committed.

According to FBI statistics, Flint, Michigan has the worst murder clearance rate at 17.5%. It is followed by Honolulu, Hawaii (18.8%), Midland, Michigan (23.1%), Saginaw, Michigan (23.3%), and Lima, Ohio (24.5%).

Although a lack of trust between police and poor minority communities—especially in the wake of multiple video recordings of police shooting unarmed Black citizens—is often used as an explanation for plummeting murder clearance rates in those communities, some affluent areas also have low clearance rates. For instance, Palm Beach, Florida and Long Island, New York clear only about one-third of their murder cases. That is comparable to the dismal clearance rates reported by Chicago and New Orleans, where gang-related murders push up the murder rate while depressing the clearance rate.

According to the FBI, 61.5% of murders reported in the U.S. were cleared in 2015. Not only does this not mean that one-third of murders went unsolved, it also doesn’t mean that close to two-thirds were solved. The reason for this confusion is the FBI’s method of determining clearance rates--dividing the number of cases ending in an arrest in a given year by the number of murders reported that year. The problem is that some of the arrests are for murders committed in previous years. This distortion of the statistics has led some small cities to have murder clearance rates exceeding 100%.

An example of this would be if a hypothetical town had five murders in 2014, five in 2015, and 10 in 2016. If a serial killer who murdered all the people in 2014 and 2015 was arrested in 2016, and no other murders were solved between 2014 and 2016, the murder clearance rate for 2014 and 2015 would be 0%, but for 2016, it would be 100%, even though none of the 2016 murders had been solved and all of the 2014 and 2015 murders had been cleared. This and other distortions make it hard to trust crime clearance statistics.

Another problem is the FBI allowing murders to be cleared by “exceptional” means, a method intended to be used when, for instance, a suspect dies or a witness is unavailable, making prosecution impossible, even if the police know who committed the crime. Some jurisdictions used “exceptional clearances” far more frequently than others. For instance, in Chicago’s murder clearance statistics from the 1980s and 1990s, up to 20% of the clearances were classified as “exceptional.” That was an example of police using this loophole to artificially boost their murder clearance rates.

In addition, some jurisdictions have local practices that distort the murder clearance rates even further. In New Orleans, a murder is considered “cleared” when a suspect is identified and a warrant issued for an arrest. The FBI does not recognize “clearance by warrant,” but New Orleans uses it to bolster its clearance rates because, if a warrant is issued in one year and the arrest is made the next year, the same murder counts as being “cleared” twice. Thus, the official murder clearance rate issued by the New Orleans police for 2016 is 41.0%, but the actual percentage of 2016 murders cleared is 29.9%, or 52 of the 174 murders that occurred in the city in 2016.

Columbus, Ohio is another city that uses “warrant clearance” for homicides. As of August 14, 2017, there were 80 murders in Columbus that year. Suspects had been arrested in 22 cases, of whom five cleared via “exceptional clearance.” That is a clearance rate of 34%. Yet, because warrants had been issued in six other cases, the city reported a clearance rate of 41%. Both rates are poor compared to national murder clearance rates of over 90% in the 1960s.

“It does appear homicide clearances are becoming rarer,” according to Thomas Hargrove, chairman of the Murder Accountability Project. “I’m afraid Columbus is joining a number of cities where most murders go unsolved.”

What are the reasons for the low murder clearance rate? In some cities like Chicago, gang-related murders and distrust of police doubtless are factors. Gang activity can drive up the murder rate while driving down the clearance rate because witnesses are afraid of retaliation if they provide the police with information implicating gang members. Citizens who have been abused by police also have little reason to come forward with any information they have, especially if the high murder rate—over 750 in Chicago in 2016—clearly shows that the police cannot or will not protect them.

Murder is so common that in the 59,000-person Austin neighborhood of Chicago, 57 murders occurred in 2016, which averages close to one in every 1,000 residents. That year, Chicago recorded more murders than New York and Los Angeles combined. Police blame gang activity, chiefly concentrated in a few poor Black and Latino neighborhoods on the city’s South and West Sides. Oddly, they also blame the murders themselves, claiming their detectives and limited resources are overwhelmed by the surge in killings.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to hire close to 1,000 new police officers and create 350 new detective positions, expanding the police force to 13,500 officers, but critics question whether that will solve the problem.

“Instead of pouring resources into hiring cops to arrest people who are responsible for the violence, it would be more effective to focus on stopping the violence before it happens in the first place,” said Rev. Ira Acree, a West Side minister who has counseled over a dozen families who lost members due to gun violence. “We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. This is a problem that’s been caused by a lack of investment and opportunity for jobs and education in these communities.”

Chicago’s dismal murder clearance rate—25.6% according to data from the Murder Accountability Project—has not been helped by the community anger generated by the November 2015 release of a video recording showing a white police officer killing a Black youth, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, by shooting him 16 times as he fled police. Similar videos have caused other communities to re-evaluate their relationships with local police.

Oddly, some detectives blame modern forensics for the slump in murder clearance rates. They say that the “DNAtesting pause,” waiting weeks to months for forensic labs to complete DNA testing, lets a case grow cold. One professor noted that DNA exonerations of murder suspects would also drive down the clearance rate. But those excuses sound specious. Murders were being solved before there was DNA testing, and there is no requirement that a detective pause an investigation while waiting for results from the crime lab. Further, the exoneration of an innocent defendant is undoubtedly preferable to a wrongful conviction, regardless of the effect on the murder clearance rate.  



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