Want to Reduce Cold Cases? Invest in Solving Homicides Now

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Photo by Amanda Hinault via Flickr

At the end of 2019, the number of  unsolved homicides in the U.S. exceeded 269,205 cases. Over the past few years there have been multiple efforts directed at addressing this cold case crisis, by improving the investigation process.

The most notable effort was the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Cold Case Working Group, which formulated National Best Practices  for implementing and sustaining a cold case investigation unit.

But the crisis continues to outpace our efforts to solve it.

As member of the NIJ working group. the question that first came to my mind was: why aren’t we trying to fix the problem by identifying the reasons these cases become cold in the first place, then move on to the cold cases?

In other words, stop the bleeding at the source!

But the mandate then was to develop a best practices guide for cold cases. Many believed that, by having a sustainable cold case unit working simultaneously with the homicide unit, clearances would increase and many cold cases would be solved.

The biggest obstacle facing the working group was how to get more law enforcement agencies to take on the task of creating a cold case unit, knowing the outcome would most likely be a successful endeavor. (The answer is probably manpower and funding.)

However, the research reflects that only about 18 percent of the agencies in the country actually have a cold case unit, and traditionally only those agencies with over 100 officers were large enough to allocate for separate specialized units.

That may sound like a lot of agencies, but keep in mind that 80 percent of all police departments have 25 or less officers.

The theme of solving homicides by stopping the “bleeding at the source” does not include the social and environmental factors we see spoken of so often, such as poverty, lack of proper education or fractured family structures.  Nor does it have anything to do with the massive increases of homicides reported throughout the country during the pandemic year of 2020―a year that hopefully will go down in infamy as an anomaly.

The source of the problem lies within the individual agencies.

In January 2021, dozens of cities across this country reported significant increases in homicides for 2020 as compared to 2019, and I believe that for most of them this will become an irregular moment in time as long as the agencies continue the work they are doing, possibly with some adjustments.

But what about the other cities who experienced a high volume of homicides never seen before? Where do they stand?

As a baseline to explain the “stop the bleeding at the source” theme, data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report compares 100 or more homicides for 2019 to the estimates for 2020.  And while not all inclusive, it will establish whether a city is experiencing a serious problem.

For 2019, this data reflects the number of homicides, the rate per 100,000 population, and the agencies’ clearance rates for the year.  The table below and attached shows the 2020 estimates for the number of homicides, the rate per 100,000 and the percent of change from 2019.

Keep in mind that the 2020 data are estimates based on news reports and that variances in reporting along with other issues may cause the numbers to change; therefore an error rate of about +/- 3 percent should be taken into consideration.

During the past few years, the usual suspects keep appearing as the top ten worst cities. And while there were 18 cities that reported 100 or more homicides, they are not all in bad shape when one considers the respective populations (or rates) and their respective clearance figures.

But surprisingly, for 2020, Baltimore―consistently among three worst cities―was the only city that did not experience an increase in homicides.  Maybe they are turning things around?

To illustrate the premise of this essay, let’s look at Memphis, Tn. Over the past few years Memphis has consistently been sixth or seventh in the nation for homicides per capita.  Predictably for 2020 it could rise to as high as third place. The last year Memphis police recorded a clearance rate above the national average was 2010; for the next nine years the city has consistently been below average, with an all-time low of 38 percent. in 2016 when they recorded their highest number of homicides until 2020.

In 2020 Memphis recorded 332 homicides (a 43 percent increase from 2019) and are estimated to have a clearance figure of about 52 percent. That’s still below the national average unless the clearance bottom falls out in 2020.  The official figures won’t be known until the FBI releases the information in September 2021.

Clearly, the way to not only reduce the number of cold cases, but reduce the number of fresh homicides coming through the front door, is to increase clearances and solve the fresh cases.

Research has clearly illustrated that cities with high clearance rates have proportionately less homicides and those with low clearance rates have more homicides.  It’s as if the bad guys know you aren’t solving the cases and therefore they run with impunity.

But the fix is not always easy to do. Homicide units are understaffed and underfunded. Their excessive caseloads means their officers are overworked. Memphis for example has a 500-plus  officer deficit. This effectively means the homicide unit is working at 60 percent of its needed manpower level, and that in turn means each homicide detective is working between 12 and 14 cases.

The national recommended standard for effectiveness is five to six cases per detective.

Being overloaded and overworked translates into exhaustion and ineffectiveness.

To make matters worse, this month the unit is on track to lose about one third of its detectives to promotions and new positions.

A couple of years ago the unit was evaluated by three experts brought in from another city.  One of the recommendations was to increase the manpower by about 40 percent or 11 detectives, and to provide advanced training that was not being made available to them.  But management essentially responded it did not have the funds.

The same manpower squeeze appears to be faced by police agencies in St Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, Kansas City, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, Indianapolis, and Houston. In 2019, all recorded clearance figures that were below the national average.

Like Memphis, the first six cities mentioned above have had these low rates for years.  They have been in trouble long before the 2020 pandemic that exacerbated their numbers and their ability to stop the bleeding.

James M. Adcock

With the significant rise of homicides in 2020, I suggest that it is time to reorganize our thinking and execute plans that will focus our attention on the new homicide cases.  If 2020 turns out to be an anomaly, then only a handful of cities will remain in trouble and the others will return to some normalcy.

Our leaders need to find a way to beef up their homicide units and provide more advanced training that will address the cold case crisis where it begins: by solving murders now before they become a statistic in someone’s computer archive.

Additional reading: Can New NIJ ‘Best Practices’ Solve the Cold Case Crisis? James Adcock, The Crime Report, Aug. 19, 2019

James M. Adcock, Ph.D., is president and founder of the Mid-South Cold Case Initiative. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be reached at jimadcock@ms-coldcaseinitiative.com.

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