Posted on June 7, 2018

Where Killings Go Unsolved

Wesley Lowery et al., Washington Post, June 6, 2018


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. {snip}

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.


Homicide arrest rates vary widely when examined by the race of the victim: An arrest was made in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, compared with 48 percent of killings of Latino victims and 46 percent of the killings of black victims. Almost all of the low-arrest zones are home primarily to low-income black residents.

The data, which The Post is making public, is more precise than the national homicide data published annually by the FBI. The federal data fails to distinguish whether a case was closed due to an arrest or other circumstances, such as the death of the suspect, and does not have enough detail to allow for the mapping of unsolved homicides.


There are 17 cities where killings have spiked over the past decade but where police now make fewer arrests. One is Indianapolis, where only 64 of the 155 criminal homicides last year resulted in an arrest.

The city has four zones with a high concentration of unsolved killings.

Among them is Crown Hill, a neighborhood of primarily poor black residents living in modest single-family homes. In the past decade, there have been 40 killings but only 12 arrests.


In interviews, Indianapolis police officials blamed the low arrest rates in Crown Hill and elsewhere on frayed relationships with residents and on witnesses who are unwilling to cooperate.

“The lack of cooperation is what we battle the most,” Deputy Chief Chris Bailey said.

Retaliation is a real fear. Henry Nunn Sr., 63, was killed in 2015 after he testified in court about a shooting he witnessed. Police note that in December, a local gang posted a YouTube video titled “Ain’t no tellin,” filmed at a cemetery. In it, gang members act out a scene in which a young man is bound, doused in gasoline and set on fire — presumably for cooperating with police.

But police also acknowledge department shortcomings: In a city where 69 percent of those killed are black, 24 of 30 homicide detectives are white.


Detective Marcus Kennedy, 58, who is retiring next year after more than three decades with the department, said he thinks cases go unsolved because some of his colleagues spend too much time at their desks instead of working the streets.

Kennedy, who is black, said his peers also have failed at times to treat people in the community with respect. “Some detectives, you know, not to call them out, but I mean they’ll piss people off real quick. Just with an attitude,” he said.


In sprawling Los Angeles, police are proud of their homicide statistics over the past decade. The number of killings has dropped annually, and more than half of the 2,200 homicides since 2010 have led to an arrest, which is slightly better than average for cities surveyed. Yet the city has several pockets where unsolved homicide is a fact of life, The Post’s analysis shows.

In Pico-Union, a gentrifying Latino neighborhood, 19 killings have led to five arrests. Right across the 110 freeway in downtown Los Angeles, a much larger area, three-quarters of homicides this decade have been solved.


In interviews, police said most of the killings in Pico-Union are linked to Latino gangs, primarily with roots in El Salvador. Many of the killings are drive-bys or walk-up shootings, and at times, the killers target the family members of rivals, stoking fear across the community, police said. This means witnesses are reluctant to cooperate and cases go unsolved.

“There are so many gangs in the city,” said Capt. Billy Hayes, commanding officer of the robbery-homicide division whose 36-year career with the department began on foot patrol in South Central. “And each one has its little nuances to whichever area it’s in.”

Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist who for two decades has studied homicide closure rates, said some types of homicide — gang violence, drive-by shootings, stranger-on-stranger killings — can be especially challenging to solve.


One key to cracking these cases, homicide investigators said, is cultivating suspects’ family members — particularly mothers or girlfriends — who may have information about a killing.


Thomas Warren, a former Omaha police chief who now runs the state’s Urban League chapter. “Unfortunately you’re not going to get a lot of cooperation if the victims themselves were involved in gang activity or drug distribution.”

Police officials acknowledge the challenges they face in some neighborhoods but said improving arrest rates has been a priority. In 2017, Omaha police made arrests in 69 percent of the city’s homicides, and officials said they are working to make arrests in unsolved cases from prior years.

They said they have renewed efforts to engage residents in parts of North Omaha where trust has historically been lacking and now hold weekly gatherings of police, public health officials, philanthropists and community leaders.


[Editor’s Note: The original story includes several maps.]