Is This the Reason There Are so Many Unsolved Murders in America?

LAPD officers in position outside a crime scene. 
(Image: Shay Sowden/ Wikimedia Commons)
LAPD officers in position outside a crime scene. (Image: Shay Sowden/ Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a 1 in 3 chance that if you’re murdered in America the police won’t identify your killer. The success rate for identifying the perpetrator of a homicide, or the “clearance rate” as the FBI would say, is 64.1 percent, whereas 50 years ago it was more than 90 percent.

Crime Scene Tape Image: Brandon Anderson/Flickr

Crime scene tape at a murder investigation. (Image: Brandon Anderson/Flickr)

It gets worse, because “clearance” describes cases that end with an arrest, but often without a conviction. This also includes people who were identified even without the possibility of arrest, (if they have died, etc.).

Criminologists have estimated that at least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s.

Delicia Turner’s husband was found murdered in Boston in 2009.

Delicia Turner said to NPR: “It’s like the boogeyman.” Her husband, Anthony Glover, was found murdered with a friend. Police never made an arrest. She says the open case preys on her mind. “You don’t know if you’re walking next to the person, if you’ve seen the person… if the person knows you.”

With the hope of seeing something that could be applied to her husband’s case, Turner watches a lot of true-crime TV. When she calls the detectives in Boston with her ideas, they tell her not to be a “TV cop,” she says.

The right and left images compare two cartridge cases fired from pistols manufactured consecutively at the same factory. Forensic examiners compare images such as these in order to determine whether a specific weapon can be matched to a bullet or casing found at a crime scene. Image: United States government work/Flickr

The right and left images compare two cartridge cases fired from pistols manufactured consecutively at the same factory. Forensic examiners compare images such as these to determine whether a specific weapon can be matched to a bullet or casing found at a crime scene.
( Image: United States government work/Flickr)

“You can best believe we’re putting our best effort forward,” she says, recalling what they tell her. But she is convinced that they have moved on. “I think that the police just give up.”

NPR wrote that homicide detectives say the public doesn’t realize that clearing murders has become harder in recent decades. Vernon Geberth, a retired, self-described NYPD “murder cop”, who wrote the definitive manual on solving homicides, says standards for charging someone are higher now—too high, in his opinion. He thinks prosecutors nowadays demand that police deliver “open-and-shut cases” that will lead to quick plea bargains.

He says new tools such as DNA analysis have helped, but that’s been offset by worsening relationships between police and the public.

He said: “If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.”

AT IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY, DNA TESTING, NOW ADDS HUMAN BODY DETECTION, A PRECISE METHOD OF MATCHING SUSPECTS TO CRIME SCENES CREATED BY LAB SCIENTISTS. THE TECHNIQUE ALSO FOILS WOULD-BE DRUG TEST CHEATERS. Image: United States government work/Flickr

At the Idaho National Laboratory, DNA testing now adds human body detection, a precise method created by scientists for matching suspects to crime scenes. The technique also foils would-be drug test cheaters.
(Image: United States government work/Flickr)

At the Idaho National Laboratory, DNA testing now adds human body detection, a precise method created by scientists for matching suspects to crime scenes. The technique also foils would-be drug test cheaters.

Police in recent years have said that there are fewer informants, especially in minority communities. They have said that the reluctance of potential witnesses is making it harder to identify suspects.

But there are some experts who don’t agree with this explanation. Charles Wellford from the University of Maryland and a criminologist has pointed out that police are still very effective at clearing certain kinds of murders.

“Take, for example, homicides of police officers in the course of their duty,” he says. On paper, they’re the kind of homicide that’s hardest to solve—”they’re frequently done in communities that generally have low clearance rates… They’re stranger-to-stranger homicides; they [have] high potential of retaliation [for] witnesses.” And yet, Wellford says, they’re almost always cleared, NPR wrote.

Police Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

Police on patrol in New York City.
(Image: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain)

What that tells Wellford is that clearance rates are a matter of priorities. Wellford says Americans should also understand that while the national rate is in the 60s, the local rates vary widely. But because the FBI doesn’t publish local agencies’ numbers, these differences are often invisible to the public.

It would be great if everyone just stopped killing each other, but we know that’s not about to stop.

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