Declining Homicide Clearance Rates

Blogger extraordinaire Dr. Helen Smith had an interesting discussion as to why the clearance rate of homicides in the United States has declined since the 1960s. The conversation was based on an article that appeared on the PJM website in relation to the recent closure of the Adam Walsh case (murdered young son of TV personality John Walsh). My initial response is listed below:

...I think that your point about less cohesive communities and the reader replies including lack of witnesses, the change in the evidence required to convict (from the 60s to today), and the impact of drugs are all relevant factors.

In the literature, it has been strongly argued that the decline in homicide clearances is due to a host of factors that have altered the contexts of the most common cases. Examining data between 1960-2002, Ken Litwin and Yili Xu's research indicated that primary factors influencing the decline in homicide clearances could be attributed to: 1) significant increase in the number of minority victims (meaning less cooperation from minority communities and/or fewer resources dedicated to solving the cases of the less powerful--depending on your world view), 2) a 196% increase in the number of bodies recovered from vehicles, 3) a 14% increase in cases where firearms were used, and 4) 13% increase in male victims.

Crime writer and blogger Stacy Horn tackled this issue in 2006, and after talking with a number of detectives offered that the retirement of veteran investigators could be contributing to the decline in clearance rates. She also briefly mentions improvements in police reporting practices as a factor--one that I would agree with. For instance, in the 1960s, I believe that many missing persons cases never made it to be classified as homicides--cases that modern forensics teams could have at least established that a crime had been committed and thus labeled the incident as a homicide

Despite differences in the type of crime, research has consistently shown that the availability of quality evidence (duh right?) is the driving factor in case solvability. When thinking about this simple observation, it is important to dissect the factors that comprise evidence. Are witnesses willing to provide police with information? Do police have the resources and want to commit them to developing leads into evidence? How much evidence is immediately available? A host of other questions could be constructed that relate to the amount and quality of evidence generated for homicide cases.

Solving real life crime is not something that is performed in an hour (with commercial breaks) as commonly seen on television--but police should consider innovative approaches and partnerships that could positively impact the percentage of cases that are cleared.