In 1963, the first year of comparable recordkeeping, 91% of murders were solved. In 2007, the number was only 61%.
At the same time, the technological ability to solve murders increased dramatically. Scientific crime scene investigation significantly increases the amount of useful evidence that can be found. Digital crime labs and computerized analysis make it easier to interpret that evidence. And of course, modern DNA techniques enable police to make unbelievably accurate identifications from the smallest particle of hair or fluid. Today’s reality would have been a science fiction fantasy twenty years ago.
So what gives?
For one thing, the kinds of murders have changed. In previous generations, murder was almost always a personal matter. The victim and the killer knew each other, had a relationship. Husbands killed wives. Friends killed friends. Rivals killed each other. To begin a successful investigation, a detective would paint a bull’s-eye on the victim. The closer a suspect was to that bull’s-eye, the more likely they were to be the killer. Cases were solved not so much by technology and physical evidence, as by getting people to talk or confess. Acquaintance homicides were, and still are, often solved because the killer contacted the police or surrendered himself.
But now, a significant number of murders are committed by gang members. Gang members and drug dealers get killed by their own groups, who aren’t likely to talk lest they be killed themselves. They get killed by members of rival gangs, and may not even know their killers. Killers may even kill completely unrelated, innocent people, through mistaken identity or reckless “drive-by” shootings. Witnesses are intimidated by the threat of being killed themselves if they come forward. So relying on people to talk or confess is not as likely to solve these crimes.
For another thing, technology only gets you so far. DNA only identifies someone if you have a sample of their DNA to compare. Gunshot residue only helps if you have the suspect’s fingers in the first place. Fingerprints are harder to find than people think, and even then can only be compared to known fingerprints. In other words, technology helps you confirm that you have the right suspect, but first you have to get that suspect. And getting the suspect in the first place often means an old-fashioned investment of shoe leather — hitting the streets, talking to possible witnesses, and conducting skilled interrogations.
Because of the advances in technology, acquaintance homicides are truly being solved at a greater rate than they were in previous decades. The suspects are known, or easily found, so the DNA and other scientific tests make identifying the killer much more certain. The scientific identification also helps get confessions.
But stranger-to-stranger homicides have increased dramatically. And despite the technological advances, these continue to have a high probability of never being solved. Motive is hard to figure out. The killings are often part of a planned crime, so that less evidence will be left behind for law enforcement to find. And any connection between killer and victim is going to be hard or impossible to identify.
So what can be done?
Studies find no correlation between the number of available police officers, or the amount of their budget, and the ability to clear homicide cases. So shoving more officers on the street, or shoveling more money at the problem, is not a solution.
Studies do show, however, that cases get cleared when detectives are ambitious and they are held accountable for the success or failure of their investigations. Cases get cleared more often when the detectives have the necessary time to devote to the investigation, and when they are part of a specialized unit where everybody is focusing on the same kind of crime.
How do you get ambitious detectives? Study after study shows this to be a huge factor. Media attention can help, when there is a lot of pressure to solve a high-profile case. But in urban areas the media is often antagonistic, media praise of police rare, and so is an underdeveloped tool. Better P.R. by the police could improve ambition. Increased internal attention, status and reward for greater clearance rates would help, as well.
Solving stranger or gang-related murders requires witnesses to come forward. They fear retribution, or being punished themselves for their own crimes. Most murders, even stranger murders, are witnessed. So a critical need is to overcome witness fears.
Studies have found that most witnesses were actually involved with the crime. They either took part in some way, they brought the killer and victim together, or they tried to stop the murder from taking place. “Innocent bystanders” only make up 9% of witnesses.
Civic pride is not likely to cause the majority of witnesses to come forward. Gang culture, and the culture of the communities where such gangs flourish, teaches witnesses to do the opposite. Cash rewards sometimes help, but the amounts commonly offered are simply too small to justify the risks a witness would run if he came forward.
Ensured anonymity is a must. But in a judicial system that properly allows the accused to see and confront his accusers, anonymity cannot be ensures. Witnesses know this. Only a real and system-wide practice of concealing the appearance and identity of witnesses to violent crimes is likely to inspire the necessary confidence. And in our legal culture, we as Americans simply value the confrontation rights of the accused more than we value the evidence we might gain by limiting those rights. That’s just the way it is.
Reducing gangs themselves, and changing the culture in which they flourish, is the long-term solution.
Gangs arise within subcultures where there is little other societal bonding and community for young males, where those young males lack (or do not see) the ability to gain status and women otherwise, and where there is a general lack of control over one’s life. Entertainment media have a huge impact on perceptions of the world. These factors create perverse incentives, so that gang membership and codes of behavior can seem to be the right choice to make.
Common factors of such communities are a lack of value placed on education, a reliance on government or others, a lack of ownership, and a xenophobic relationship with the larger community. Undervalued education minimizes earnings and options in adulthood, as the lack of parental involvement kills schools and a thou-shalt-not-do-better-than-us attitude among peers kills student ambition. Reliance on welfare, the police, programs and others to take care of life’s needs leads to an endemic lack of personal responsibility, which kills family ties and any bond to a larger civic society. Illiteracy, immersion in the skewed reality of television and musical entertainments, and a perception that the rest of society is foreign and irrelevant, further impact perceptions of how the world works.
These problems have often been many generations in the making, and are not susceptible to overnight changes. Policy changes would be required that strengthen the family bond, rather than giving incentives to father children from multiple mothers without requiring any long-term ties and responsibilities. Policy changes would be required that lead community members to see themselves as part of the larger society, and not separate from it, subject to separate rules. Policy changes would be required that create incentives for parental involvement in schools, and pave the way for cultural views of education as the means to success.