Why are police only solving 1 in 2 murders? Many scholars and police department officials say murders are becoming more difficult to investigate, while some victims’ families say police spend too much energy on things other than solving crimes, reports The Marshall Project.
Philip Cook, a public policy researcher at the University of Chicago Urban Labs, has been studying clearance rates since the 1970s. He cautioned that fewer clearances than in the 1960s and ‘70s may not necessarily be a bad thing. “It also could be that the standards for making an arrest have gone up and some of the tricks they were using in 1965 are no longer available,” Cook said of law enforcement. Every story about a person convicted of murder on shoddy evidence and later exonerated was once counted as a “successful” homicide clearance.
Cook, and other experts, mostly pin the long, steady decline in clearance rates onto the kinds of homicides police are being asked to solve. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that over time, a growing proportion of killings are being committed by strangers and unknown assailants, as opposed to people the victim knew. The data also shows that unknown assailants are increasingly using firearms rather than knives, fists or other close-quarter weapons. As the social and physical distance between killers and victims increases, detectives say they have fewer leads to follow.
But the changes in the nature of homicides — which some criminologists call case mix — are not destiny. Some cities routinely solve two or three times more homicides than others, even after accounting for case mix. Within departments, some detectives solve many more homicides than others.
“That variation tells us something important,” said Charles Wellford, emeritus professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland-College Park. “It says that it's not inevitable that there will be low clearance rates.”
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