Posted on January 30, 2022

As Murders Spiked, Police Solved About Half in 2020

Weihua Li and Jamiles Lartey, Marshall Project, January 12, 2022

For homicide detectives, 2020 brought good news and bad news. On the one hand, police across the nation solved more murders — in absolute numbers — than in any year since 1997, according to data reported to the FBI. On the other hand, because new homicides increased sharply, the reported rate at which killings were solved, known as the “clearance rate,” declined to a little below 50%.

The lower clearance rate in 2020 was an extension of a long, steady drop since the early 1980s, when police cleared about 70% of all homicides, and a decline that experts say was exacerbated by the pandemic. {snip}

In most cases, clearing a crime means at least one suspect was arrested and charged with the crime. However, individual agencies have different ways of calculating clearance, with some clearing a case once police identify a suspect, and others if an arrest is made.

At the national level, the FBI uses blunt math to calculate a clearance rate, dividing the number of crimes that were cleared — no matter which year the crime occurred — by the number of new crimes in the calendar year. {snip}

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For police to “clear” a crime, they usually need to identify and arrest the suspect. But according to more granular data collected by the FBI but reported by fewer agencies, at least 400 murders cleared in 2020 were solved by “exceptional means.” That means police believed they had enough evidence, but were unable to make an arrest. This occurs when the suspect has died, can’t be extradited or if prosecutors refuse to press charges. Critics say police use clearance by exceptional means — sometimes colloquially described as putting “bodies on bodies” — to artificially inflate clearance numbers.

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Why are police only solving 1 in 2 murders? Many scholars and police department officials say murders are becoming more difficult to investigate {snip}

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Meanwhile, in communities where trust in law enforcement is low — often communities of color — homicide detectives have a hard time getting witnesses to talk to them, said Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“If people criticize the police constantly, it is natural that people would be less willing to talk to police,” Moskos said. Without useful leads, police solve fewer murders, and the perception that they are ineffective leaves witnesses and victims skeptical that talking to the police will do any good. In other words, Moskos said, it’s a vicious cycle.

There are many reasons people avoid speaking to the police, from the lack of confidence Moskos raised, to a fear of violent reprisals. According to Melina Abdullah, co-director for the national community organizing group Black Lives Matter Grassroots, another important reason is that police often criminalize crime victims — specifically in Black communities — treating them as suspects rather than survivors.

A police and prison abolitionist, Abdullah said that clearance rates are not useful measures for addressing violence in communities.

“Clearance rates, especially when we talk about acts of community violence, might give some kind of temporary sense of relief. But it’s not justice,” Abdullah said. “I don’t know anybody who’s felt like, ‘OK, now I can rest because this murder has been cleared by the police.’”

Clearances don’t necessarily lead to criminal penalties like incarceration. In the nation’s 70 largest counties, nearly one-third of people accused of murder were acquitted or had their charges dismissed, according to a 2009 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s the most recent year with local prosecution and conviction data available on the national level.

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