Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Why Fewer Murder Cases Get Solved These Days

• May 19, 2009 • 11:40 PM

A new study by three FBI officials suggests that cooperation — whether by witnesses or even other departments — is the key to closing more murder cases.

Ask homicide detectives what the No. 1 roadblock to their investigations is, and, by far, the leading response is “witness cooperation.” That’s one reason the average homicide clearance rate — cases solved by police departments compared with the number of known homicides — which approached 90 percent in 1960 is now a third less, 61 percent.

It’s one of the significant findings in “An Exploratory Analysis of Factors Affecting Homicide Investigations,” a study by three FBI researchers that appeared in the February issue of Homicide Studies. The study used data from 55 big city police departments and set out to examine law enforcement practices in a number of areas, including investigative procedures, analytical methods and demographics of the population served. The researchers hoped this would help them come up with some conclusions as to why homicide cases are becoming tougher to close.

Although well researched, some of the study’s findings seem obvious, the kind of information that can be gleaned from watching almost any episode of Law and Order or CSI. For example, formal training of homicide detectives and the use of sophisticated investigative techniques such as blood spatter analysis increase closure rates. The study also notes that some crime scenes are so compromised in an evidentiary sense that the murders might never be solved.

Another finding of note is that, not surprisingly, media coverage can be a double-edged sword. It can focus attention on a particular case but also flood local police departments with so many phone calls regarding alleged leads that legitimate leads prove harder to find and pursue.

And, according to the study, interdepartmental cooperation, say between detectives and prosecutors, should make investigations more effective, but, says one of the study’s co-authors, John P. Jarvis of the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, “The issue might be that the cooperation might be viewed by the public as ‘we’re all in this together'” — a positive in some eyes but an improper collusion in others. “It’s counterintuitive, but that’s our interpretation of the data.”

“Prosecutors have a very different job, and we’re both looking to get a conviction,” adds study co-author Timothy G. Keel, of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. “They have different requirements of what they need to bring a case to court, and that might bring conflicts.”

All of this, valuable as it is, still does not totally explain the discrepancy in closure rates between now and 50 years ago. But Jarvis might be on the right track when he notes that “some have said there was not the proliferation of drugs, weapons or gang activities then as there is now.”

In fact, the authors argue that the proliferation of drugs and gangs in certain areas has turned the conventional wisdom on its head. Rather than a police tendency to devalue victims from minority communities, hence ignoring or failing to pursue homicide investigations in these areas, it is actually “police devaluation” that is at the root of the problem.

“A victim or a person who knows them might distrust the police,” Jarvis says, “but you also have victims who might not want to go to the police. They don’t believe the police are the tool or the mechanism for resolving that behavior.”

“It’s not fear of the police,” Keel claims, “it’s fear that if they cooperate, there will be retaliation from individual criminals.” Jarvis and Keel point to two factors: the retaliatory nature of gang behavior and the “don’t snitch” mentality.

“They don’t go to the police if someone is killed,” Jarvis says of the gangs. “They say, ‘We’ll kill two of yours.'” He adds that victims and witnesses sometimes refuse cooperation with law enforcement agencies, either because those agencies are viewed as corrupt and racist or because cooperation can lead to violent retribution by criminals.

“The parties involved in a lethal conflict that results in a homicide may not only view the police with mistrust,” according to the study, “but may also view the conflict as one in which informal street justice may be a more effective resolution for the parties involved than the formal social control that the police represent.”

The solution to this problem, according to the study, is simple but not easily achievable: “There has to be a relationship between the police and the community that has to be one of faith in each,” Jarvis says. He points in particular to Operation Ceasefire, a 1996 Boston initiative aimed at curbing youth and gang violence. The essence of the program was that law enforcement agencies told gangs there would be swift and sure consequences for violence, and because these agencies kept their word, two years after the program was implemented, gun assaults and homicides by persons under the age of 24 had decreased by more than 70 percent.

“It’s more than tough love,” Jarvis says of programs like Operation Ceasefire. “It’s opening lines of communication and a partnership.”

But, Keel adds, “The reality is that when they live with gangs and that is the culture there, it’s difficult for a community to get control of that situation when they lose control.”

Still, not all homicides are drug- or gang-related. And even though, according to Jarvis, “there’s a public expectation that every homicide will be solved, that’s not true. There will be some cases where there are no viable leads, no physical evidence, no witnesses. Should it be 30 percent or 40 percent of the cases? No.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

More From Lewis Beale

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription with Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.