Nearly half of all murders in the United States remain unsolved due to declining staff numbers in police departments all over the country.
In an investigation by CBS News, reporters quoted Thomas Hargrove, head of the Murder Accountability Project, who claimed that the chance of a murder case being solved is “a 50-50 coin flip.”
“It’s never been this bad,” he said. “During the last seven months of 2020, most murders went unsolved. That’s never happened before in America.”
America’s murder clearance rate, or the share of murder cases that police departments are able to solve or close, has been worsening over the years. In 2017, 38.4 percent of the 15,657 murders reported nationwide went unsolved, or 6,012 in all, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2009, the murder clearance rate was 66.6 percent.
In one terrible instance of a murder remaining unsolved, in Jackson, Mississippi, police called Denita Williams back in April to inform her that her son, 20-year-old Kenland Thompson Jr., was shot and killed. “The coroner had already taken his body,” she said. “He was already gone.”
Three months later, Williams was still waiting for the Jackson Police Department to arrest someone for her son’s murder. “I gave them names,” she said, describing how she told the department that she was willing to investigate the case herself. “I felt like I was going crazy, giving them so much. They’re not doing their job.”
Certain states have better clearance rates than others. Alabama and Nebraska, for example, have clearance rates of 83 percent each, followed closely behind by Kentucky and Alaska, with clearance rates of 79 percent and 76 percent, respectively.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rhode Island has the worst murder clearance rate in the U.S. at 21 percent. Michigan and Ohio follow closely with murder clearance rates of 39 percent each.
In Jackson, the police department for the city of about 160,000 people responded to 153 murders in the past year, but only had eight homicide detectives to deal with the caseload. The FBI’s guidelines suggest that homicide detectives should be covering no more than five cases at a time.
Jackson Police Chief James Davis said his department needs “more of everything” to keep up with the crime in the city. (Related: California county announces end of daytime police patrols, citing “catastrophic” staffing issues.)
“The whole system is backlogged,” he said. “I could use more police officers. I could use more homicide detectives. But if the state is backed up, the court is backed up, we will still have the same problem by developing these cases that we’re already doing.”
In Philadelphia, Police Department Commissioner Danielle Outlaw noted that police departments are also suffering from the breakdown in trust between officers and the communities they protect. This has made it harder for police departments to receive tips or obtain help from witnesses.
Outlaw blamed the mistrust on a long history of police officers getting away with incidents of misconduct. “We’ve gotten in our own way,” she said. “It has to be a two-way street, as it is with any relationship.”
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