Murder rates are down in Minneapolis — but so is the rate at which police are clearing the cases

Last year, 35 people were murdered in Minneapolis; 19 were murdered in St. Paul.

How many of those cases were solved? In St. Paul: 14, or about three quarters. The figure’s not so hot for Minneapolis: only 19, or about half, were officially solved. That’s according to FBI statistics compiled by the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project.

While St. Paul has maintained relatively steady numbers over the years for the rate of solved murders, officially known homicide clearance rates, the share of murders solved in Minneapolis is down. That mirrors a national trend: in 1965, 83 percent of U.S. murders were cleared. Last year, it was 56 percent.

That the murder clearance rate is down from the 1960s — before DNA testing, cell phone tracking and the internet — might come as a surprise.

“When you watch television, every murder gets solved by beautiful people standing in front of glittering TV monitors,” said Thomas Hargrove, a former investigative journalist who founded the Murder Accountability Project.

In reality, that’s not the case, and not just the movie star part: last year, 2016, saw the lowest national clearance rate in history, Hargrove said: “A growing number of cities, unfortunately, are probably places where you’re going to get away with murder.”

Harder to clear murders

Overall, Minneapolis’ clearance rate, which was routinely above 75 percent between 1965 and 1975, averaged 59 percent in the last decade.

There’s one important caveat to these numbers though: The FBI is missing several years of data for both Twin Cities, particularly in the 1990s, an era that saw a high rate of murders. Also worth remembering is that the overall rate of murders has generally declined in the last two decades after peaking in the ’90s. But despite a lower rate of murders to investigate, police in Minneapolis are clearing a historically low percentage of them.

So what’s behind the drop?

First of all, police say it’s harder to clear a murder than it used to be. Under the FBI’s guidelines, there are two ways for a murder to be cleared: the first is to have someone arrested, charged with the murder, and to turn the case over to prosecutors. The second, by “exceptional means,” allows a murder to be cleared in extenuating circumstances, such as if the perpetrator is dead or witnesses won’t cooperate (departments vary on their use of exceptional means clearances).

Minneapolis homicide clearance rate, 1965-2016
The share of murders that were officially solved, called the clearance rate, has generally seen a decline in Minneapolis.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, compiled by the Murder Accountability Project and Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Uniform Crime Statistics

At the Minneapolis Police Department, someone today usually has to be charged with some degree of homicide for the case to be cleared, said Lt. Rick Zimmerman, who has been working with homicides with MPD since the Murderapolis days — in 1995, the city’s homicide rate rose to 26 murders per 100,000 residents. In 2016, Minneapolis’ murder rate was 8 per 100,000 residents, according to the state’s Uniform Crime Report.

This requirement means if the perpetrator is charged with a different crime — like felony possession of a firearm, because murder can’t be proved — it doesn’t show up as cleared, Zimmerman said.

Not only that, but prosecutors have become more demanding about the level of evidence required to charge somebody with murder, Zimmerman said —  which he said isn’t a bad thing (not all cops agree), just a fact.

Thirty years ago, “If we had one witness that said number five was the shooter in a six pack lineup ... the prosecutor might say that’s good and then they might charge the guy based on that,” he said. Investigating a murder at that time might have taken three search warrants. A more recent case, he said, took 70.

With stricter rules, it can also take longer for the case to get to the prosecutor, who then brings charges. That means the case might not be cleared in the year it happens. Since the statistics don’t get updated after they’re reported, such cases don’t show up in the clearance rates (though some cities, not including Minneapolis, Zimmerman said, report homicides that happened previously in clearance rates for the year they are solved).

Take the death of Birdell Beeks, a grandmother who was shot and killed when she drove through a gang shooting in North Minneapolis in the summer of 2016. That homicide wasn’t cleared until the following year, Zimmerman said.

While the FBI shows clearance rates in the low-to-mid 50s for 2015 and 2016 in Minneapolis, Zimmerman said that because of cases solved after they were reported,  he’d put the rate closer to the low 60 percents for those years.

Between technology and the amount of resources expended on homicide cases — four investigators, at least two from the homicide unit  are initially assigned to each murder case, and more are added as needed — Zimmerman said the police department has generally gotten better at solving crimes: when he started, he was often assigned to a case alone.

He attributed the decrease in clearance rate largely to the increase in killings more difficult to investigate.

Today, there are fewer crimes of passion than there used to be — the kind most often committed by someone close to the victim, which makes the solving part easier. There are more drive-by shootings and other crimes associated with gang activities, which often happen between more loosely-connected people and in communities where residents are reluctant to talk to police.

“They’re often occurring among people who aren’t going to talk to the police, or they’re occuring at night or in drive-by situations where trying to get information on those shooters is trying to rely on ballistics and DNA and maybe having somebody come forward down the line,” Dolan said.

Criminologists tend to agree with this assessment, said Aki Roberts, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“It’s not because homicide detectives are worse or something like that. They have harder homework, a harder assignment to work on,” she said. Harder here than in most developed countries. In many developed countries where there aren’t a lot of guns, homicide clearance rates are near-perfect, she said.

Along with the task of investigating these more anonymous crimes, tack on strained relationships between police and some communities in which they work — particularly African American communities, and you have even more trouble clearing murders.

“Even with all of the advances in forensic evidence, the presence (and cooperation) of eyewitnesses is still what is most likely to solve a homicide,” wrote Wendy Regoeczi, a professor and the director of the Criminology Research Center at Cleveland State University, in an email. “The lack of trust between police and local communities makes it very difficult for police to obtain cooperation from eyewitnesses, making it difficult for them to solve homicides.”

In spite of facing a lot of the same challenges, though, St. Paul manages a higher clearance rate than Minneapolis.

Between 1965 and 1975, clearance rates in St. Paul averaged 86 percent. There are some years missing from the Murder Accountability Project’s data. In the last decade, St. Paul has averaged 78 percent.

St. Paul homicide clearance rate, 1965-2016
The share of murders that were officially solved, called the clearance rate, in St. Paul has not seen the same decline as in Minneapolis or the U.S.
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation, compiled by the Murder Accountability Project and Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Uniform Crime Statistics

That’s quite a bit higher than Minneapolis. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, St. Paul does report some types of crime-solving as clearances where Minneapolis doesn’t. This includes some deaths where the perpetrator was charged with a crime other than murder, said Steve Linders, a St. Paul Police Department spokesman.

In addition to having a lower murder rate in the first place, St. Paul also tends to have less gun violence than Minneapolis, Zimmerman said. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any hard-to-solve crimes that present the same types of challenges police see in Minneapolis, though. Several uncleared cases stick out to Linders as uncleared in recent years, he said, largely because witnesses won’t talk to police.

Getting away with murder

While the decline in the homicide clearance rate in Minneapolis is a trend seen in cities throughout the U.S., there are some exceptions.  A couple cities, including New York and Los Angeles, stand out for turning clearance rates around, Hargrove said.

New York, which had a 29 percent clearance rate in 1995, has increased its rate to 69 percent. It did this largely by starting at the bottom, cracking down on small crimes like jumping turnstiles and graffiti, then applying that philosophy to bigger crimes, Hargrove said.

Not only did clearance rates increase, but the number of murders occurring each year dropped considerably. Hargrove said. Similar case in Los Angeles.

Yet there’s disagreement over the effectiveness of this law enforcement philosophy, often called “broken windows policing.” And there are other alternatives. If strained relationships between police and communities are a big part of the reason police are struggling to clear homicides, it follows that a community policing approach, in which police build relationships with communities, could also help cops make progress in improving clearance rates.

Hargrove argues increasing  homicide clearance rates needs to be on more cities’ radars.

When fewer people who commit murder are caught, a few things happen, Hargrove said: first, that might mean they’re still on the streets, able to strike again. Second, other people who see them walk free might be emboldened to act. There’s also the fact that when someone who’s committed murder remains in the community, there’s a chance they’ll be killed for vengeance.

“Murder literally begets murder,” Hargrove said.

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