In recent months President Trump has called for a new national initiative to reverse what he sees as a sharp increase in violent crime across the nation. On February 7, the President told a gathering of more than 3,000 sheriffs from around the nation that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” Two days later, in his first public comments made immediately after he was sworn in as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions stated, “We have a crime problem. I wish the blip — I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk.”
While violent crime is still at historic lows, murder rates are rising in some U.S. cities
Neither President Trump nor Attorney General Session’s assertions are borne out by objective facts or FBI crime data. The murder rate — defined as the number of murders and non-negligent homicides per 100,000 residents— went from a high of 10.2 in 1980 to 4.4 in 2014. The raw number of homicides in America has declined from 19,645 in 1996 to 15,696 in 2015, even while the population has risen from 265 million to 321 million during that same period.
Likewise, despite Attorney General Session’s assertions to the contrary, long-term US violent crime trends have been declining — not increasing— for years.
However, while overall national crime rates are still at historic lows, it is true that 2015 and 2016 have seen upticks. Violent crime ticked up roughly 4% from 2014 to 2015. The murder rate increased to 4.9 in 2015, and the Brennan Center for Justice has projected an additional 14% increase in our 30 largest cities when all of the 2016 numbers are in.
The recent spike in homicide rates is real, but it is also a highly localized problem. It is not the fictitious nation-wide trend decried by Attorney General Sessions. 2016’s 14% increase in the urban murder rate is mostly accounted for by two very specific murder spikes: one in Chicago and one in Charlotte, North Carolina. In fact, Chicago’s murder increase will alone account for almost half of the overall 2016 urban murder increase. This invites two questions: what is wrong with Chicago, and how can we ensure Pima County doesn’t follow Chicago’s lead?
U.S. and Chicago murder clearance rates drop
According to the Brennan Center, some reasons for the increasing violence in Chicago include, “falling police numbers, poverty and other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, and gang violence.” One factor the Brennan Center gives less attention to, and which may go a long way towards explaining things, is the murder clearance rate.
In law enforcement, a murder case is “cleared” when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual judicial outcome may be. “Clearance rates” are a measure of what percentage of murders results in an arrest. For years, it was difficult for researchers and criminologists to accurately ascertain true clearance rates in big cities and small towns across the country. But in 2015 Thomas K. Hargrove, a retired investigative journalist and former White House correspondent, founded the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project (MAP). Hargrove created MAP to track unsolved homicides nationwide, using algorithms to study the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Every year Hargrove downloaded and crunched the most recent FBI data set, and was shocked by the number of murder cases that had never been cleared — 211,487 — more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Bloomberg Business week recently published a profile of Hargrove and his work, and explained how U.S. homicide clearance rates have been on a longtime downward trend.
Disturbingly – but perhaps not surprisingly – murder clearance rates also appear to be plagued by the same racial and gender disparities that haunt the criminal justice system as a whole.
“If you leave the killers to walk the street, why wouldn’t that cause more killings?”
How does all of this relate to what is wrong with Chicago? Well, as Bloomberg journalist Robert Kolker wrote in his profile of Thomas Hargrove and MAP, it seems intuitive that at least some murderers will kill again, and if so, low clearance rates will correlate with higher murder rates. Sure enough, Hargrove confirmed this when he analyzed information from 218 metropolitan jurisdictions in the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime Report, and found that the homicide rate in low clearance rate cities was almost double the rate of high clearance rate cities — 9.6 homicides per 100,000 people versus 17.9. “It makes perfect sense,” Hargrove said. “If you leave the killers to walk the street, why wouldn’t that cause more killings? The answer is, it does.”
The data from Chicago supports this thesis. While the national murder clearance rate has held roughly steady since 2000, the Chicago rate has dropped precipitously.
Tucson is not like Chicago
In 2015 Chicago’s homicide total hit 472, and police cleared just 123 of those cases – a 26% clearance rate. Compare this to Pima County, where law enforcement cleared 37 of 48 homicides in 2015- a 77% clearance rate. Our police and Sheriff’s deputies also did a better job than their counterparts North of the Gila River; Maricopa County law enforcement cleared 127 out of 172 homicides in 2015 – a 74% clearance rate.
It is important not to view improving murder clearance rates as a magical panacea. Violent crime in Chicago and other U.S. cities is undoubtedly exacerbated by the social factors the Brennan Center listed. However, Thomas Hargrove’s Murder Accountability Project has demonstrated a strong correlation between higher clearance rates and lower murder rates.
Obviously hiring more police officers, and ensuring they are well-trained and well-paid, would likely improve the situation in areas struck by the recent uptick in violent crime. But as criminologist Charles Wellford demonstrated in a study published in 2000, clearance rates also depend on how quickly detectives respond to a murder scene, how effectively they can cordon off the scene and interview potential witnesses, and whether detectives are given the leeway to chase leads in the hours immediately after a murder, even if that means paying them overtime. These may be important reasons why Tucson is not like Chicago. In the face of a new moral panic over a fictitious crime wave— created and stoked by our President and Attorney General— it is important to keep our criminal justice efforts focused on scientific, qualitative law enforcement, and it is important to be proud of Pima County for what it has been doing right.
– Joel Feinman