Murderers in America have a 50% chance of getting away with it, according to alarming new data showing homicide clearance rates at an all-time low.
Analyses of FBI data show that 71% of homicides were deemed solved in 1980 — dropping to only about 50% in 2020, the last time the data were compiled.
“We’re on the verge of being the first developed nation where the majority of homicides go uncleared,” Thomas Hargrove, founder of the Murder Accountability Project, told the Guardian.
A graph by the group shows that the clearance rate was even higher before 1980, seemingly marked as high as 90% in 1965.
A separate graphic shows a sudden spike in homicides in 2020 — with the number marked as solved barely increasing from preceding years.
The Marshall Project — another nonprofit focused on criminal justice — also noted a “historic low” in 2020 of only “about 1 of every 2 murders” being solved.
The Marshall Project and Murder Accountability Project compile data because there is no publicly available government database tracking homicides and the outcomes of police investigations into them.
The research is confounded by the fact that different agencies have different criteria for marking a case cleared.
For most, it means someone has been arrested, charged and turned over to a court for prosecution.
However, the FBI also allows homicides to be marked clear over “exceptional means,” including when a victim refuses to cooperate to take a case to trial or when a suspect is being tried elsewhere for other crimes.
It also applies when the suspect dies, which critics call putting “bodies on bodies” to help boost clearance numbers, the Marshall Project noted.
Some experts, however, caution that the data do not take into account key factors that have also changed over the decades — suggesting that the lower clearance rate could in fact be a sign of progress.
“It also could be that the standards for making an arrest have gone up and some of the tricks they were using in 1965 are no longer available,” said Philip Cook, a public policy researcher at the University of Chicago Urban Labs who has been studying clearance rates since the 1970s.
He noted to the Marshall Project that outrageous cases where convicts are cleared because of “shoddy” evidence were at the time listed as a “successful” homicide clearance.
Critics note previous reports that suggest the issue is particularly stark in
low-income black and Latino neighborhoods.
“People don’t need to see the data to know that the police are not doing their job,” Tinisch Hollins, executive director of a California justice reform group, told the Guardian.
“My perception is that police are failing to do their job.”
Others, however, suggest that the recent backlash against cops amid protests against police killings have also harmed investigations, both through defunded forces and witnesses unwilling to help.
“You hear every cop saying, ‘We can’t do better because they don’t cooperate,’” retired homicide detective John Skaggs, who now trains officers across the US, told the Guardian.
Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, previously told the Marshall Project that it was a vicious cycle.
“If people criticize the police constantly, it is natural that people would be less willing to talk to police,” Moskos said, with that handicapping any investigations and further raising criticism of cops.
The spike in cases has also overwhelmed many homicide squads.
“For us, it’s the volume,” veteran Philadelphia homicide detective Joe Murray previously told CBS News.
Murder Accountability chairman Thomas Hargrove, however, has blamed “a failure of political will by local leaders.”
“The Murder Accountability Project firmly believes declining homicide clearance rates are the result of inadequate allocation of resources — detectives, forensic technicians, crime laboratory capacity, and adequate training of personnel,” he said.
Either way, Jessica Pizzano of Survivors of Homicide noted the importance for families to see their loved ones’ killers taken off the streets.
“Is the murderer in my neighborhood? Will I run into them at the grocery store? Or when I’m pumping gas? … These are real fears that families live through,” Pizzano previously told the Marshall Project.
“They just want that person to never, ever do that to another family again.”