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“Far from justice”: why are nearly half of US crimes unsolved?

Homicide ‘clearance rates’ have plummeted over the past four decades, compounding relatives’ trauma

Every night since May, two-year-old Nylah Cheese has slept with a crocheted doll wearing a white tee, black pants and a silver chain. The toddler’s aunt, Silvia Lopez, had the figurine made in the likeness of Nylah’s father, Brandon Cheese, who was shot and killed at a park in San Francisco the month before.

“She instantly knew it was him and screamed, ‘It’s Dada!’” Lopez, Brandon Cheese’s older sister, said. The toddler has since named it “Dada doll”.

Since Cheese’s killing, Lopez and her family have been working to ensure Nylah knows who her father was and how much he loved her. But for the past 10 months they’ve also been searching for answers about who killed Cheese and why.

San Francisco police have yet to make any arrests.

“I feel like I’m letting my brother down if I’m not doing anything,” said Lopez. She fears that if she stops speaking publicly about her brother, no answers will come. She’s made posters and put them up around the city, posted photographs of the suspect’s vehicle and publicized the $50,000 reward the San Francisco police department is offering for any leads.

“It’s hard to know how far away you are from getting justice for the one you love. I don’t wanna wait years, days or months,” Lopez said.

She and her family are part of a growing group of Americans who have had a loved one killed but have yet to get the closure of an arrest or conviction.

Over the past four decades, homicide clearance rates – the metric used to determine how many homicides police solve – have decreased from about 71% in 1980 to an all-time low of about 50% in 2020, according to separate analyses of FBI data by the non-profits the Marshall Project and Murder Accountability Project. This means that amid an unprecedented increase in homicides in 2020 and 2021, mostly by guns, roughly half of the nation’s killings went unsolved. The drop continued as police departments received soaring budgets, despite calls to defund the police and invest in alternatives and resources in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“We’re on the verge of being the first developed nation where the majority of homicides go uncleared,” said Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, which tracks unsolved homicides in the US.

There are several ways a homicide can be considered cleared. One is if someone is arrested, charged and turned over to a court for prosecution. Homicides can also be cleared by “exceptional means”, including the death of a suspect, another jurisdiction’s refusal to extradite someone, or police identification of a suspect, according to the FBI.

There is no publicly available government database that tracks the nation’s homicides and resolutions. And what is available in federal, state and local law enforcement databases isn’t broken down by the race of the victim or circumstance of the crime. This means that to get a clear picture of whose murders are going unsolved, journalists and researchers have to use a patchwork of data from local and federal law enforcement and court records.

Dinyal New started a Facebook group, Who Murdered My Child?, after her two sons were killed 19 days apart in east Oakland, California, in 2019. Photograph: Jason Henry/The Guardian

“This should be a governmental function,” Hargrove said. “It should be mandatory and there should be special accounting made of cases that have gone unsolved. If a murder has not been cleared after a year then greater detail should be reported and made public.”

Academic studies and a 2018 Washington Post project show that arrests for these crimes are the least likely to happen in the pockets of US cities – such as Oakland, Baltimore and Indianapolis – where Black residents are most often killed.

Homicides of young Black and Latino men are the most likely to be left unsolved, said David Bjerk, the Russell Bock professor of Public Economics at Claremont McKenna College in California, while “other demographics have not seen the same or as notable declines”.

In a study published in July 2022, Bjerk found that the clearance rate for the homicides of “minority” men was 15-30 percentage points lower than that of any other racial demographic.

For Lopez, who is of Nicaraguan descent, learning that the cases of young Black homicide victims, like her brother, are the least likely to be solved was painful but unsurprising. “Who is actually getting justice?” she said. “I worried for my brother’s safety growing up seeing Black men face so much violence. I worried about him ever having an encounter with the police. Now I worry his case will grow cold.”

In California, the statewide homicide clearance rate has fluctuated over the past 20 years and at times dips below the national rate, according to data from the California department of justice. In 2020 the rate was 59%; the following year, it dropped to 54.5%. Meanwhile in San Francisco county, the homicide clearance rate has varied greatly over the past 20 years, according to the state justice department. In 2008, the county’s homicide clearance rate was at a two-decade low of 17%. The next year, it jumped to 75%.

In 2020 and 2021, the San Francisco police department’s homicide clearance rate was about 75% , but it is unclear how many cases were cleared as a result of an arrest or conviction, or due to one of the “exceptional means” the FBI recognizes. There is also no demographic data on the victims in cases that have been cleared.

There is “no single factor, or group of factors … that definitively will have an impact on the outcome of an investigation”, the department said in a statement.

Brandon Cheese’s mother, Sylvia Cheese, said she had a good line of communication with the detective handling her son’s case and believed that investigators were doing their best with thinning resources. “How can I blame [him] for not doing enough if the department doesn’t give you the tools to do it? San Francisco is overloaded,” Sylvia said. “The detective keeps me updated. When I call, he makes the time.”

Still, she wishes her family had more opportunities to talk about Brandon publicly to raise awareness of her family’s struggles to get answers. “I lived for my son; his dreams were my dreams. It has affected me tremendously, there are no words to explain. We don’t know who did this, no one knows,” Sylvia said. “They killed my son and the next day everyone forgot.”

There are a variety of explanations for declining clearance rates, depending on who’s being asked.

Some community and victims’ advocates say low clearance rates reflect a general lack of care about homicides that happen in low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods – a view that is supported by academic research and reporting on racial disparities in clearance rates.

“People don’t need to see the data to know that the police are not doing their job,” said Tinisch Hollins, the executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform organization. She said there was “apathy” for victims of crime in certain neighborhoods, which sent the message from police that “you guys will sort yourselves out. [Gun violence] is an inherent piece of your community because you’re inherently violent.”

Law enforcement, however, cites a shortage of experienced homicide detectives, and often accuses community members – many of whom have been harmed by decades of police violence and mistreatment – of being unwilling to help out with investigations.

“You hear every cop saying, ‘We can’t do better because they don’t cooperate,’” said John Skaggs, a retired homicide detective for the Los Angeles police department who has more than two decades of policing experience. “But these young cops don’t know how to talk to people and get them to cooperate.”

Skaggs, who travels the country to train police and detectives on the homicide beat, also notes that many cops want to solve homicides from their desks, using technologies like DNA testing, ballistics and cellphone tower data – but that these tactics don’t help in many of the homicides, especially those that happen on city streets instead of homes.

Amid changes in police department dynamics and new investigative technologies, families like Lopez’s are being left with trauma that compounds each day their loved one’s case is left unresolved.

‘Who is actually getting justice?’ Photograph: Simon Leigh/Alamy

The longer cases go unsolved, the more communication between families and law enforcement deteriorates, which can leave families “feeling adrift”, said DeWanda Joseph, who runs a healing circle for families who have lost loved ones to homicide and works to bridge gaps between them and homicide detectives. It’s also personal for Joseph. Her nephew, Ivan Thompson, was shot and killed in 2010 and police have yet to make any arrests.

Through her work and personal experience, she’s seen the anger, confusion and hopelessness that families – especially parents – feel when a homicide detective they had been in touch with changes posts or retires and no one in the department picks up communication.

“No one calls and tells you your detective retired or was promoted, all you know is that your daughter or son’s homicide hasn’t been resolved,” Joseph said. “When they make a call with no returns, it creates frustration, distrust, feelings of being ignored. That becomes secondary trauma – your loved one is gone and no one hears your suffering.”

For Cheese’s family and other families of homicide victims, their loved ones’ cases will feel resolved only after the person who pulled the trigger is arrested, charged and convicted. But a case being marked as cleared in a police database does not mean that it has made its way through the court system.

“We have less understanding of what’s happening in our broad justice system,” Bjerk said. “When we think about justice, it’s the whole process all the way through convictions or sentencing and how much that varies [across different] victims or defendants.”

The impact of the decrease in clearances and lack of transparency about convictions is multifold, researchers and victim advocates say. If police solve fewer crimes in the most affected communities, then residents will continue to lose confidence in law enforcement and potentially find that participating in homicide investigations is futile. And the longer a homicide case remains open, the more trauma compounds, especially when long-term mental health support resources are unavailable.

“Whether there is an arrest or not, there is no way to quantify the damage done to people psychologically, emotionally,” said Hollins, of Californians for Safety and Justice.

“My perception is that police are failing to do their job – the system can never provide full closure – but they do have a responsibility to be responsive and make sure our citizens are safe, informed and respected throughout this process. But it’s not happening.”

Source: the guardian