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Can Police Improve Abysmally Low Murder Clearance Rates?

More murders are going unsolved, exacerbating the grief of families and worsening the declining trust between police and the public, especially communities of color most affected by gun violence, NPR reports.

"I haven't had any word," says Mark Legaspi about the murder of his cousin, friend and business partner Artgel Anabo Jr., 39, who was shot outside their popular Filipino fast-food restaurant Lucky Three Seven in East Oakland, Cal. on, May 18, 2022. "It's still emotional every day coming in here, you know?"

Detectives released security camera footage and the license plate number of the suspected get-away car. Anabo's family believes the suspect is a man who sold him a truck that turned out to be stolen. "It's definitely frustrating. Justice hasn't been served," Legaspi says. "I mean it's almost a year. I would like to know something. I don't get no answers," he says, saying he hasn't heard from homicide detectives for months.

While the rate at which murders are solved or "cleared" has been declining for decades, it has now dropped to below 50% in 2020, a new historic low. Several big cities, including Chicago, have seen the number of murder cases resulting in at least one arrest dip into the low to mid-30% range.

"We saw a sharp drop in the national clearance rate in 2020," says Prof. Philip Cook of Duke University and the University of Chicago Urban Labs who has been studying clearance rates. "It reached close to 50% at that time nationwide, which was the lowest ever recorded by the FBI. And it hasn't come up that much since then."

That makes the U.S. among the worst at solving murders in the industrialized world. Germany consistently clears well over 90% of its murders.

Cook and other experts warn that more people getting away with murder in the U.S., driving a kind of doom loop of mutual mistrust: low murder clearance rates impede future investigations, which may drive up killings in some communities where a lack of arrests undermines deterrence and sends a message that the police will not or cannot protect them.

Oakland is a prime example of the vicious circle. The city's per capita homicide rate remains abnormally high and its murder solve rate is among the lowest in the nation, hitting just 36% last year. If you take out the handful of older, "cold" cases that were solved during 2022, the clearance rate in Oakland just 27%, an analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle shows.

Drennon Lindsey, an Oakland deputy chief who formerly led the homicide division, said says the veterans among 16 detectives are often handing two dozen or more cases at a time, far above the federal recommendation that detectives carry an average of only four to six new homicide cases per year.

In addition an antiquated case management data system, which the city is working to replace, is another reason behind the painfully low clearance rate. The biggest problem, she says, is too many people are scared to talk with and help the police department.

"People don't want to cooperate, people don't want to come to court and testify. And they're afraid of retaliation, of being labeled in their communities as a "snitch." And we're often left trying to plea and beg for the community to come forward with information to hold this person accountable for committing murder," she says.


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