Crime dramas would have us believe there is no way to get away with murder – at least not without going to Dexter-length proportions – but the truth is that most murders in the United States go unsolved, even when the cases are closed.
Cleared vs. Solved
The official percentage of unsolved murders in the US is around 38%, significantly higher than it was just a few decades ago. Statistics from major cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Detroit that have infamously high rates of gang violence and murders paint an even grimmer picture.
Chicago’s same-year murder clearance rate was only 17.5% in 2017. The longer a case stays open, the less likely an arrest will be made. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, fewer than one-third of cases are cleared after two years. And just because a case is “cleared” doesn’t mean it was truly solved, or that justice was served.
Out of the 62% of cases that are “cleared,” over 10% are administrative clearances – meaning the cases are closed because the police agencies can’t take the matter any further. In Chicago in 2017, that number was nearly 22%. These cases are cleared for various reasons, including prosecutors declining to issue an arrest warrant due to lack of evidence or the suspect being declared dead (a practice known as “putting bodies on bodies”).
How is it possible that we have the largest incarcerated population in the world and yet such a low clearance rate for what is considered the worst of all crimes?
In his book, “A Colony in a Nation,” Chirs Hayes explores the “broken windows” theory of policing. He explains that the budgetary and prosecutorial priorities in most American communities focuses on keeping up the appearance of “clean streets” rather than the more difficult task of tackling violent crime or its underlying causes (such as poverty or racial injustice).
This form of policing is valuable because it brings in revenue from tickets, fines, court fees, and probation fees as well as auctioning property obtained through civil forfeiture in jurisdictions where it’s practiced.
As the Brookings Institute reported in 2017, “arrests reflect the frequency with which crimes are reported, police decisions regarding offenses on which they will concentrate their attention and resources,” not necessarily the quantity of offenses themselves.
Self-reported surveys on violent crime tend to report higher numbers than state-sanctioned statistics, with estimates that as much as half of all violent crime in the US goes unreported. A lack of trust in the justice system to hold the guilty accountable plus the fear of retaliation keeps witnesses from talking to the police.
At least the Department of Justice is aware of the problem. Last year, the Bureau of Justice Assistance published its findings from a multiyear study of police departments in Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, and Houston. The project examined homicide investigations and came up with strategies to improve clearance rates.
One major issue pointed out in the report is the lack of funding, training, and technologies for “digital evidence and crime analysis capabilities.” Recently, a young woman who was popular on social media was stalked and killed by a man who then posted photos of her dead body online. Updating technologies in policing is necessary in the age of digital surveillance, facial recognition, GPS locating, and analyzing smartphones and social media for plans, photos, and other evidence.
Additional strategies recommended by the BJA include more thorough training and more stringent requirements for homicide detectives, as well as clear written policies and procedures for agencies to follow.