Police are struggling to solve murders as homicides rise and the Covid-19 pandemic creates new challenges to cracking cases.
Homicides were up nearly 40% for the country’s 10 largest police departments in the first 11 months of 2020 compared to the same period last year. The clearance rate at nine departments that provided data was down by an average of 7 percentage points to about 59%.
The sudden rise of homicides across the country, a reversal after a general decline in the nationwide murder rate since the early 1990s, has overwhelmed detectives, some police officials say. Among other factors, Covid-19 has complicated face-to-face interviews and made it easier for masked suspects to elude capture.
Moreover, in some communities, trust in police has fallen amid nationwide protests over policing, making witnesses more reluctant to cooperate, some police officials say.
“When you put the civil unrest plus the Covid, I just felt unfortunately 2020 was a perfect storm,” said Brendan Deenihan, chief of detectives at the Chicago Police Department.
Homicides in Chicago are running 55% higher than last year, while the clearance rate has slipped 6 percentage points to 46%. Gang violence, a perennial problem in Chicago, is driving the increase, and those cases are difficult to crack due to a lack of cooperative witnesses, he said.
In Philadelphia, the ability to wear masks without arousing suspicion appears to have emboldened some criminals and helped them elude police, even when surveillance cameras capture video of their crimes, said Benjamin Naish, the city’s deputy police commissioner for investigations, who oversees the homicide unit.
“If the person has their mask on and their hood up, it’s just that much harder to identify who that person is,” he said.
Bringing in witnesses, canvassing crime scenes and knocking on doors are all harder due to social distancing, said Matt Slinkard, the executive assistant chief of police who oversees the homicide unit in Houston.
The homicide unit in Texas’s most-populous city was hit by a Covid outbreak at the same time murders were rising in late spring, forcing some detectives to quarantine and slowing down investigations, he said.
There were 380 murders in Houston this year through Dec. 4, up from 256 over the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, the clearance rate has fallen to around 45% from 56%.
Early on, during restrictive lockdowns, there was a rise in homicides attributed to domestic violence, but more recently the increase has been driven by gang shootings, said Chief Slinkard.
Earlier this month, Houston Police Chief
said the homicide unit would be given more investigators and additional money for overtime.
was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May, trust in law enforcement has fallen, particularly in Black communities, said
executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advises many police departments.
“Where people might have been more cooperative with police and given them information, that’s made more problematic,” he said.
Many families are now waiting longer for the murders of loved ones to be solved.
Brenda Sawyer’s 34-year-old son, Allen Taylor, was shot three times just after midnight on June 1 in northwest Philadelphia. No arrests have been made yet.
“I want the person that did it to be thrown to justice, because they took my son’s life,” said Ms. Sawyer, 67 years old. “I don’t feel comfortable because this person is walking around.”
The causes of the 2020 rise in murders nationwide will likely be studied for years. But police lay some blame on the economic and psychological stress people are facing during the pandemic.
In addition, many states and communities released accused criminals from jails and inmates from prisons to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which some police say might have contributed to the rise in homicides. Local officials have said they primarily released nonviolent offenders.
Monitoring the U.S. Outbreak
Confirmed cases by state, ranked by latest full-day count
Daily confirmed cases per 100,000 residents
Note: Trend indicates whether a state had an increase or decrease in total number of cases in the past seven days compared with previous seven days. Last updated
Sources: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering; the Lancet; Associated Press; U.S. Census
This summer’s protests against perceived police brutality and racism were sometimes accompanied by looting and violent clashes between protesters and police. Homicides in many cities rose afterward.
A murder case is “cleared” when a suspect is arrested, charged and turned over to a court for prosecution, or is identified with sufficient evidence for a charge but can’t be taken into custody for circumstances beyond police control. The rates include homicides committed in previous years that were solved in 2020.
Not all cities are struggling to solve murders. In Las Vegas, where killings were up 10% through Dec. 2, detectives had a 94% clearance rate, virtually unchanged from last year. Capt. Sean Toman, who heads the homicide and sex crimes bureau for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, attributed the high clearance rate to a healthy relationship with the community and an unusual policy in which investigators on cases that go unsolved for more than 30 days must present their work to a group of the department’s top detectives, who ask questions and make suggestions.
“It’s been helpful in a few cases, but it’s far more helpful for accountability because none of the detectives or even the sergeants want to be the guy that goes in that room,” said Capt. Toman.
Part of the problem for some departments was the sudden crush of murders after a relatively quiet first half of the year because of the restrictive lockdowns. In Los Angeles’ Southeast Division, which covers Watts and the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects, about 80% of the 41 homicides as of Dec. 8 have occurred since July, said Nathan Kouri, who oversees the homicide detectives there.
“That’s going to take a huge toll,” said Det. Kouri. “It takes time for these investigations to marinate.”
The week before Christmas, Det. Kouri and 12 other homicide investigators from the entire South Bureau—which includes most of South Los Angeles—were out because of a Covid outbreak. “It’s more chaotic because we have less investigators,” he said. “We’re making do.”
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