The percentage of opened murder cases that are closed with the arrest of a suspect in America today is around 64% with about two out of every three cases going unsolved, totaling about 200,000 unsolved murders since the 1960’s–according to a two-part report from National Public Radio’s Morning Edition this week based on data the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report.
Those are grim numbers, but Charles Wellford, a criminologist at the University of Maryland, told writer Martin Kaste that the more interesting story lies in the highly variable closure rates of individual police agencies rather than national averages. Kaste cautions that UCR reports are “notoriously uneven,” open to failures and errors by the individual agencies in reporting. If the UCR lists that zero robberies happened in an area in a certain year, for example, that may be because there were no robberies, but it is also possible that the police agency did not report on its robbery cases, or that the agency’s report was dismissed because of errors.
The 2013 UCR found that the Murfreesboro Police Department had a violent crime clearance rate of 38% (which includes robbery and aggravated assault in addition to murder and non-negligent manslaughter), down from 43% in 2012. The department reported to the FBI that they arrested a suspect in all but one of the four murders investigated that year. Of aggravated assaults, 234 of 505 cases were closed, a rate of 46%.
Closure rates for robberies were much lower at a rate of 14%, down from 22% last year.
The MPD’s violent crime closure rate was second-lowest among Tennessee’s ten most populous municipalities. Memphis police scored lowest, with a reported closure rate of 28% for all violent crimes and a 58% rate for murders alone, closing 72 out of 125 cases in 2013.
Clarksville, the city most comparable to Murfreesboro in population, saw a 63% violent crime clearance rate.
Among the ten largest Tennessee cities, Johnson City in East Tennessee (2013 pop. 64,928) ranked higest in violent crime closure with a closure rate of 81%.
The UCR also collects reports from university campus police. The MTSU police department reported to the FBI a 73% clearance rate in 2013, up tremendously from the previous year’s 42%, arresting a suspect in 11 of the 15 violent crimes investigated on campus that year, including 10 aggravated assaults and two robberies.
Compared to Tennessee universities of comparable size, these are impressive numbers. Although the campus police for the University of Tennessee at Knoxville reported fewer total violent crimes in 2013 (two aggravated assaults and three robberies), their closure rate was 43%, down from 63% in 2012. The University of Memphis reported four violent crimes on campus in 2013, and closed three of them.
Back at the national scale, the one-in-three statistic represents a precipitous drop. However, Kaste reported, the national crime rate has historically been in decline, and the fall in closure rate numbers may simply be due to a shift in focus by the nation’s police agencies–from solving crimes to preventing them.
There is also an increasing lack of trust of police, Kaste said, which makes it difficult for detectives to get the cooperation from possible witnesses necessary to solve homicides. Wellford told him that this “no snitch” culture is most prevalent in minority communities, beginning a “vicious cycle” in which police can’t clear murders because of lack of cooperation, the clearance rate goes down in that community, causing the members of that community to be more suspicious that the police do not have the community’s best interests at heart.
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