As crime rates surge in the United States, nearly half of all murders are left unsolved, according to FBI data analyzed separately by two non-profit organizations, the Marshall Project and the Murder Accountability Project.
Homicide “clearance rates,” the rate at which murders were solved, dropped from 71% in 1980 to an all-time low of approximately 50% in 2020, based on the most recent numbers released by the FBI. The agency will not release 2021 data until later this year.
In most instances, homicides are considered cleared when at least one individual is arrested and charged in connection with the crime.
According to the Marshall Project, law enforcement agencies have varying definitions of cleared homicides, making the data difficult to track accurately. For example, the non-profit explained that some agencies clear cases when a suspect is identified but not arrested or charged.
Conversely, the FBI calculates clearance rates by dividing the number of homicides that were cleared, regardless of the year in which the crime occurred, by the number of homicides reported that year.
The FBI reported that at least 400 murders in 2020 were cleared by “exceptional means,” which indicates that police believed they had enough evidence but were unsuccessful in making an arrest. In these cases, it could mean that the suspect died, could not be extradited, or prosecutors chose not to press charges.
From 2019 to 2020, law enforcement solved 1,200 more homicides than the previous year; however, at that same time, homicides increased by 30%. Therefore, approximately one of every two homicide cases was considered solved.
During that same period, national clearance rates for rape were 30%, assault 47%, and robbery 27%. Burglaries, thefts, and arsons had the lowest clearance rates, between 14-21%.
“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.
Peter Moskos, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, told the Marshall Project that the low clearance rates could be due to negative police rhetoric.
“If people criticize the police constantly, it is natural that people would be less willing to talk to police,” Moskos stated.
Retired homicide detective John Skaggs echoed a similar sentiment, telling the Guardian, “You hear every cop saying, ‘We can’t do better because they don’t cooperate.’”
Philip Cook, a public policy researcher at the University of Chicago Urban Labs, claimed that the low clearance rate could 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,” Cook told the Marshall Project.
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