Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved | KERA News

Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved

Mar 30, 2015
Originally published on March 30, 2015 9:22 pm

If you're murdered in America, there's a 1 in 3 chance that the police won't identify your killer.

To use the FBI's terminology, the national "clearance rate" for homicide today is 64.1 percent. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent.

And that's worse than it sounds, because "clearance" doesn't equal conviction: It's just the term that police use to describe cases that end with an arrest, or in which a culprit is otherwise identified without the possibility of arrest — if the suspect has died, for example.

Criminologists estimate that at least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s, leaving family and friends to wait and wonder.

"It's like the boogeyman," says Delicia Turner. Her husband, Anthony Glover, was found murdered — along with a friend — in Boston in 2009. Police never made an arrest. She says the open case preys on her mind. "You don't know if you're walking next to the person, if you've seen the person ... if the person knows you."

Turner watches a lot of true-crime TV, hoping to see something that could be applied to her husband's case. She calls her ideas in to the detectives in Boston, who tell her not to be a "TV cop," she says.

" 'You can best believe we're putting our best effort forward,' " she says, recalling what they tell her when she phones. But she's convinced they've moved on. "I think that the police just give up."

Homicide detectives say the public doesn't realize that clearing murders has become harder in recent decades. Vernon Geberth, a retired, self-described NYPD "murder cop" who wrote the definitive manual on solving homicides, says standards for charging someone are higher now — too high, in his opinion. He thinks prosecutors nowadays demand that police deliver "open-and-shut cases" that will lead to quick plea bargains.

He says new tools such as DNA analysis have helped, but that's been offset by worsening relationships between police and the public.

"If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us," he says.

Since at least the 1980s, police have complained about a growing "no snitch" culture, especially in minority communities. They say the reluctance of potential witnesses makes it hard to identify suspects.

But some experts say that explanation may be too pat. University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford points out that police are still very effective at clearing certain kinds of murders.

"Take, for example, homicides of police officers in the course of their duty," he says. On paper, they're the kind of homicide that's hardest to solve — "they're frequently done in communities that generally have low clearance rates. ... They're stranger-to-stranger homicides; they [have] high potential of retaliation [for] witnesses." And yet, Wellford says, they're almost always cleared.

What that tells Wellford is that clearance rates are a matter of priorities.

Wellford says Americans should also understand that while the national rate is in the 60s, the local rates vary widely. But because the FBI doesn't publish local agencies' numbers, these differences are often invisible to the public.

NPR had to make a special request for those local clearance rates. You can find them, by city, using our look-up tool, and can learn more about clearance rates — and why local data can be difficult to obtain — here.

That relative invisibility of clearance rates may have played a role in their decline over time. The public is much more aware of overall, national crime rates and the continuing good news about the falling homicide rate.

But even though most people are unaware of clearance statistics, Wellford thinks certain communities have an anecdotal sense that crimes aren't being solved.

"Those [uncleared] homicides tend to occur in poor communities, minority communities," he says. "What is the impact of an unsolved homicide when those unsolved homicides are primarily in the very communities [where] we're trying to build stronger relationships with law enforcement?"

In other words, could the legacy of unsolved murders be feeding a vicious cycle, by undermining the public's willingness to cooperate with investigators?

Still, it's easy to see why police departments have become more focused on prevention.

"The emphases change," says David L. Carter, a criminologist at Michigan State University. The crime waves of the 1970s and '80s pushed police departments toward prevention strategies — broken-window patrols, more officer visibility in high-crime areas, stop-and-frisk — and solving crimes became secondary. "In some instances, the clearance rates are one of those things that kind of snuck up on people."

Some police departments are now feeling the pressure to reverse the trend. Detroit is an extreme case. When the city was on the verge of bankruptcy a couple of years ago, the murder clearance rate was flirting with single digits. A new chief was brought in, and homicide investigators were reorganized into squads that "specialize" in certain parts of the city.

"Now if we get a case ... we've had something in that area already," says Sgt. Mike Russell, who leads one of the squads. "We have a particular family [whose] names come up in several of our cases, and we know to look at them now."

Cities such as Detroit are also trying to improve their clearance rates by digging into their files, looking for older cases that might be solved with new techniques. Russell points to one on his desk involving a girl who disappeared in 1979.

"A body was discovered in '92 in the dump, in Monroe County, in cement. And she was just ID'd two weeks ago," he says.

Russell says he and his squad work on old cases whenever they have time. Solving old murders improves current clearance rates, because under the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting standard, a department gets the credit in the year a murder is cleared, not the year it's committed.

But old cases can get a department only so far. Once the low-hanging fruit are gone, rates often start to slide back. Carter says that local agencies should try to emulate departments that have made more lasting improvements in their clearance rates.

In 2013, Carter authored a federal report on police departments with the best practices. One of the stars was Richmond, Va.

"The chances of you getting caught doing a murder now are a whole lot greater than it was 10 years ago," says Detective Mark Williams. Richmond was suffering through a surge of violent crime then, and he says some investigators were getting as many as five or six homicide cases a week.

"You were doing assembly-line homicides," he says. "If there was something there that you could do, to use to get an arrest, you stayed on it. But if there was nothing there [that you could use], you moved on to the next case."

Instead of accepting low clearances as a byproduct of the murder rate, Richmond refocused its efforts. Williams says the department reduced investigators' caseloads, and the city gave it money to take care of potential witnesses.

"We move you;we relocate you. There are people out there that want to cooperate, but you've got to take care of them," he says.

Today, Richmond's homicide clearance rate routinely hits percentages in the 80s and 90s, depending on which reporting standard is used.

The problem, of course, is that all of this costs money. Homicide investigations are inherently expensive, and cash-poor cities are less able to reduce investigators' caseloads. In Detroit, for instance, each homicide investigator still expects to "catch" a dozen cases a year — well above the four or five that's considered the national standard.

And each case takes a lot of man-hours as it is. On a freezing afternoon in late February, about 10 Detroit police officers have spent an hour on a fruitless search of a house for a murder weapon — even though investigators don't expect to find the gun there.

"It's one of those T's you gotta cross," says Sgt. Brian Bowser. He says the suspects are already in custody and talking, so they don't need the weapon to prove the case. But they have no choice but to take these steps. "When we go to trial, they're going to say, 'Well, if you knew the weapon was there, did you search that residence?' And now we can say, 'Yeah, we searched it.' "

In the modern legal system, even "easy" homicide cases are complex, bureaucratic tasks. In Detroit, a city with one of the worst murder rates in the country, these investigators admit to feeling intimidated by the pressure to keep up.

Bowser's squad uses a whiteboard to track its cases' clearance status. Open cases are written in green; cleared cases, in red. But investigators can be superstitious when it comes time to declare a case cleared. Bowser's partner, James Kraszewski, won't even pick up the red marker.

"I will not change my own color," he says. "I feel if I change my own color, my next one, I will not be able to change."

So who changes the marker color on Kraszewski's cases? "Whoever wants to do it for me," he says, as his partner laughs.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A close look at crime statistics reveals a grim reality. Overall, the news is good. The nation's homicide rate has dramatically dropped in recent decades.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But when a murder does take place, police often struggle to solve it. Across the country, 1 in 3 murder cases goes unsolved. Some communities do even worse. No one is brought to justice in two-thirds of killings or even more.

INSKEEP: An NPR analysis now sorts out which communities do better or worse. And this story begins to explore why. Here's NPR's Martin Kaste.

DELICIA TURNER: Hi, come in.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hi. Delicia?

DELICIA TURNER: I'm Delicia.

KASTE: Nice to meet you.

DELICIA TURNER: That's my girl, Deja.

DEJA TURNER: Hi.

KASTE: Hi, how are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

DEJA TURNER: Shut up, Lola.

KASTE: Delicia Turner watches a lot of true crime TV. In her home outside Boston, she keeps the big screen tuned to something called Investigation Discovery.

DELICIA TURNER: I watch this channel all the time. This is why I drive myself crazy.

KASTE: Crazy because for her, murder is a personal reality. She's lost two men in her life to homicide, first, the father of her children in 1996 and then in 2009, her husband, Anthony Glover. He was killed in Boston along with a friend who was, as she puts it, into some bad stuff. The police never ID'd their killer.

DELICIA TURNER: It's like the boogeyman. You don't know if you're walking next to the person, if you seen the person, if the person sees you, if the person knows you. That's the worst part about it.

KASTE: So she watches crime TV. She's hoping that she'll see something that could be applied to her husband's case. She calls in her ideas to the detectives in Boston, and she says they tell her to stop being a TV cop. She thinks they're getting tired of her calls.

DELICIA TURNER: Ms. Turner, you know, we are working on this. We're working the case. Unfortunately, we have no suspects. We are looking into it. You can best believe we're putting our best effort forward. You know, to me, I think that the police just give up.

KASTE: There are a lot of Delicia Turners out there. When police talk about solving murders, they refer to the clearance rate. That's the percentage of cases in which they arrest someone or otherwise identify a culprit. Fifty years ago, the national clearance rate was 90 percent. Now it's in the 60s. But it's not the national rates that interest Charles Wellford.

CHARLES WELLFORD: Those rates are made up of thousands of agencies. And if you look at those agencies, you find quite a bit of variation.

KASTE: Wellford is a criminologist who's been studying clearance rates for years. If we want to understand what's really going on, he says we need to compare the track records of individual police departments.

WELLFORD: Some agencies have declined tremendously. Others have declined a little. And there are some agencies that, throughout this 30- or 40-year period, have remained at very high levels of homicide clearance.

KASTE: But the government doesn't make it easy to compare those local rates. The FBI publishes clearance numbers by region, but not city by city. You have to make a special request for those. So NPR did, and now you can find them on our website. When you dip into the clearance data, you find perplexing differences between cities. You may think that's just a matter of the richer, safer cities doing a good job, but it's not that simple. There are some places that are doing a great job solving murders despite poverty and drug crimes, places like Richmond, Va.

MARK WILLIAMS: The chances of you getting caught doing a murder now are a whole lot greater than it was 10 years ago, in my opinion.

KASTE: Mark Williams is a veteran detective in Richmond. He says there was a time when their rate was bad. Twelve years ago, investigators there were just overwhelmed.

WILLIAMS: Some of them guys are getting five and six homicides a week. Basically, you were doing assembly line homicides. If there was something there that you could do to use to get an arrest, you stayed on it. But if it was nothing there, you moved on to the next case. So what was happening? People were getting away with murders.

KASTE: So Richmond took stock of the situation, and it refocused itself on solving homicides. It reduced detectives' caseloads, and it did more to take care of witnesses. To encourage their cooperation, the police there now pay for things like food, cell phones, even rent.

WILLIAMS: We move you. We relocate you. There are people out there that want to cooperate, but you got to take care of them.

KASTE: Now Richmond has years when the clearance rate is above 90 percent. Criminologist Charles Wellford says the lesson here is that to clear homicides, a city has to make it a priority.

WELLFORD: If you apply the right kind of resources and the right level of effort, you could clear every homicide that's known to police.

KASTE: Maybe. But resources are finite, and the fact is for the past few decades, the police have been pushed toward different priorities - broken windows, safe streets, stop and frisk. The emphasis nowadays is on preventing crime, not so much solving it. And also, when you talk to police about the low clearance rates, they say something else. They say the real factor for them is how little cooperation they're getting from the public.

VERNON GEBERTH: I don't like what I see. The trend is not good.

KASTE: Vernon Geberth is retired NYPD, and he wrote the manual on homicide investigations. He says new technology like DNA analysis has helped, but it doesn't replace the need for witnesses.

GEBERTH: If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.

KASTE: Police complain a lot about the reluctance of witnesses. And it's a complaint that gets sympathy, even from Delicia Turner. Even though she spent the last five years wondering why the police don't solve her husband's murder, she says she also knows full well that detectives often get stonewalled.

DELICIA TURNER: Because we did it.

KASTE: She says her family once hid things from the police on another case, and now she's seeing people clamming up about her husband.

DELICIA TURNER: I am not going to just put the blame on the police because they can't squeeze the information out of them. They can't see. You know, if you don't tell, they don't know. But then, the first thing everybody wants to yell is what the police is not doing.

KASTE: So which is it? Are murder clearance rates down because of the no snitch culture, or are they down because solving murders has become less of a priority? Criminologist Charles Wellford says maybe those two things are connected. He says you have to think about the fact that since the 1960s, there have been more than 200,000 unsolved murders.

WELLFORD: Those homicides tend to occur in poor communities, minority communities. What is the impact of an unsolved homicide when those unsolved homicides are primarily in the very communities we're trying to build stronger relationships with law enforcement?

KASTE: In other words, what happens when people in high-crime areas start to think that their murders aren't being solved? Wellford wonders whether that's been eroding the trust between the public and police, the very trust the detectives rely on to be able to solve their next murder. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

INSKEEP: As Martin mentioned, we built a tool at npr.org that allows you to look at your police department's record for solving homicides and other crimes. I've been using that tool to look at Detroit where the clearance rate is not good. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.