The Washington Post has identified the places in dozens of American cities where murder is common but arrests are rare. These pockets of impunity were identified by obtaining and analyzing up to a decade of homicide arrest data from 50 of the nation’s largest cities. The analysis of 52,000 criminal homicides goes beyond what is known nationally about the unsolved cases, revealing block by block where police fail to catch killers.
The overall homicide arrest rate in the 50 cities is 49 percent, but in these areas of impunity, police make arrests less than 33 percent of the time. Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows, 34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate now than a decade ago.
Some cities, such as Baltimore and Chicago, solve so few homicides that vast areas stretching for miles experience hundreds of homicides with virtually no arrests. In other places, such as Atlanta, police manage to make arrests in a majority of homicides — even those that occur in the city’s most violent areas.
In Pittsburgh, a low-arrest zone occupies a run-down stretch of boarded-up buildings, two-story brick homes and vacant lots. In San Francisco, another one falls within a bustling immigrant neighborhood where day laborers and community college students crowd bus shelters and freeways snake overhead. In the District, yet another sits in the heart of Petworth, a gentrifying neighborhood crowded with construction cranes and the skeletons of future condos.
Police blame the failure to solve homicides in these places on insufficient resources and poor relationships with residents, especially in areas that grapple with drug and gang activity where potential witnesses fear retaliation. But families of those killed, and even some officers, say the fault rests with apathetic police departments. All agree that the unsolved killings perpetuate cycles of violence in low-arrest areas.
Detectives said they cannot solve homicides without community cooperation, which makes it almost impossible to close cases in areas where residents already distrust police. As a result, distrust deepens and killers remain on the street with no deterrent.
“If these cases go unsolved, it has the potential to send the message to our community that we don’t care,” said Oakland police Capt. Roland Holmgren, who leads the department’s criminal investigation division. That city has two zones where unsolved homicides are clustered.
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