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 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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