Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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