The number of murder cases that go unsolved by police hit a new high in 2020, according to an analysis of recent FBI data by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).
Number-crunching by the CCJ revealed that the murder “clearance rate”―the proportion of resolved cases―fell to 50 percent last year, in tandem with an historic single-year increase in homicides.
That represented a five percent drop from the previous year, amounting to “the largest decrease in clearance rates since 1989,” the CCJ analysis said.
Clearance rates in fact have been dropping steadily since the 1970s. In 1976, according to FBI figures, police were able to solve 82 percent of murders.
The lowering clearance rates may be driven by the fact that police didn’t know the specific relationships between victims and perpetrators in more than half the cases, with over 56 percent of the circumstances recorded as “unknown” ― a rise of 10 percent since 2010.
“When fewer cases are solved, authorities know less about them,” the CCJ report said.
The CCJ noted that ”some media reports, and some elected officials and candidates for elected office have suggested that homicides have become more random and brazen,” but added there isn’t enough data to support those characterizations.
The latest load of unsolved murders has added to the accumulating number of “cold cases” languishing in precincts around the country. At the end of 2019, the number of unsolved homicides in the U.S. exceeded 269,205 cases, James M. Adcock, founder of the Mid-South Cold Case Initiative, wrote earlier this year in The Crime Report.
Few observers expect the number of cleared cases to improve any time soon, particularly as police departments around the country grapple with staffing shortages and eroding community trust.
The analysis comes against the background of an historic spike of nearly 30 percent in the homicide rate in 2020―“the largest in 100 years,” according to a report released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the CCJ cautioned against drawing any conclusion about the 2020 surge, noting that the rate of increase in homicide had already begun to slow during 2021, to about 16 percent. While that still represents a significant rise, fears about a “crime wave” are likely misplaced.
Even the 2020 homicide rate remains 33 percent lower than its most recent peak in 1991.
Other public safety indicators such as property crimes have continued on a downward slope since the high-crime 1990s.
Nevertheless, CCJ noted that the FBI figures show an increase in the percentage of homicides involving firearms to 77 percent in 2020, from 73 percent in 2019 and 67 percent in 2010.
And in another troubling data point identified by CCJ analysts, the percentage of Black victims increased by 6 percent in 2020, while the percentage of white and Latinx victims has decreased, by 6 percent and 9 percent respectively.
Although recent headlines have focused on gang killings, the percentage of offenders and victims aged between 30 and 39 has been “steadily increasing over the past decade” to a current level of 24 percent, while the number of victims 19 and younger dropped slightly from 17 percent in 2019 to 15 percent in 2020.
The complete CCJ analysis can be downloaded here.