Data Wonk

Solving Murders in Milwaukee

Milwaukee’s arrest rate in murder cases outpaces that of most other large U.S. cities.

By - Jun 13th, 2018 03:53 pm
Crime Scene Tape

Crime Scene Tape

Two earlier Data Wonk columns from 2016 (here and here) looked at data in reports from the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission on shootings and homicides in Milwaukee.

Somewhat mysteriously, the homicide commission stopped issuing its reports after mid-2016. An October 2017 article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Ashley Luthern (“Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission shifts focus, pauses study of killings”) suggested several reason behind ending these reports, including a lack of funding and, most disturbingly, the withdrawal of support from the police department. Did former chief Ed Flynn sabotage this effort?

In March of this year, Luthern was joined by Gina Barton to co-author an article that argued, in the words of its title that Milwaukee’s problem is that “we don’t stick with what works when it comes to reducing crime and preventing violence.” As an illustration, Luthern and Barton expanded on the demise of the shooting reports:

As homicides spiked in the summer of 2015, the director of the city’s Homicide Review Commission — tasked with analyzing deadly violence here — was booted from her office inside Milwaukee police headquarters.

Mallory O’Brien‘s removal from the building brought an end to the collaboration that had been the commission’s hallmark since its formation in 2005.

Edward Flynn, then the Milwaukee police chief, saw less value in the commission as he built up the department’s technology and crime analysis capabilities. Police officials stopped showing up at the monthly meetings. Not long after O’Brien was kicked out of the police station, her real-time access to the department’s information was revoked.

The reporters conclude that O’Brien “again has access to police data after Interim Police Chief Alfonso Morales took over.” Whether this means the reports will be revived is unclear. The Commission website appears not to have been updated since 2016 and an email to O’Brien did not receive a response.

In the Commission’s absence, a surprising source has stepped in to help fill the information gap—at least partially. Recently, the Washington Post released data it collected on more than 52,000 criminal homicides over the past decade in 50 large cities, including Milwaukee.

The Post’s data includes the name, gender, age, and ethnicity of the victim, the map coordinates of the homicide, and the disposition of the case. It used three categories of disposition: open, closed by arrest, and closed without arrest. The Post used the example of a case where the suspect died as an example of the latter. It did not include suicides, accidents, and mass shootings in its rate calculations.

In contrast to the Homicide Commission, the Post did not include information on the perpetrator and his or her relationship with the victim, the rates compared to the population, non-lethal shootings, or the weapon used.

The Post released the data to accompany an article titled “Murder with impunity, Where killings go unsolved.” The theme was that “there are areas where murder is common but arrests are rare.”

Compared to the other large cities, by this measure, Milwaukee fares relatively well. Overall, the arrest rate was just under 49% for all the cities. By contrast, 64 percent of the 1,115 homicides in Milwaukee resulted in an arrest. As the next graph shows, this places Milwaukee in 6th place among its peers.

Cities ranked by arrest rates

Cities ranked by arrest rates

The next graph, using the Post’s data, shows the number of homicides (blue bars) and the arrest rate (orange line) for Milwaukee since 2007. In recent years, the arrest rate has declined from 70% to around 60% in Milwaukee, and homicides jumped in 2015. Still Milwaukee’s arrest rate outpaces that of the majority of cities and, according to the database maintained by the Journal-Sentinel is 71% in 2018.

Milwaukee Homicides

Milwaukee Homicides

The theme of the Post article is that there are many neighborhoods that suffer from high homicide rates combined with low arrest rates. It identifies Chicago as having the worst arrest record. On the following map, neighborhoods with many homicides and few arrests are shown in red.  Those with many homicides followed by arrests, shown in blue, are notably missing.

Map of Chicago homicides vs arrests

Map of Chicago homicides vs arrests

The next map shows an overview of Milwaukee, as shown below. There is a band of high-homicide neighborhoods running north to south. In most, the arrest rate is quite high.

Map of Milwaukee homicides vs arrests

Map of Milwaukee homicides vs arrests

The next map shows some of the same area, but at a larger scale. The locations of individual homicides are shown—in red if no arrest was made and in blue if an arrest was made. As the Post explains:

Areas shaded in orange are places where fewer than one-third of the homicides resulted in an arrest.

Areas shaded in blue are where two-thirds or more of the homicides resulted in an arrest.

Map of Milwaukee homicides vs arrests

Map of Milwaukee homicides vs arrests

In addition to where homicides take place, the Post data can be used to look at who is likely to be a victim of a homicide—their age, ethnicity, and gender. As the next graph shows, looking at all 50 cities, young black males in their late teens or early twenties are most likely to be murder victims. Black females have a strikingly similar age distribution, peaking around age 20. Yet, even though they are likely to live in the same neighborhoods, their chance of being murdered is one tenth of the males.

Black homicide victions-50 cities

Black homicide victions-50 cities

Milwaukee homicides are a microcosm of the national picture.

Black homicide victions-Milwaukee

Black homicide victions-Milwaukee

The homicide rates for Hispanic Milwaukee residents follows the same pattern as to age and gender. I have not tried to adjust them for the population in Milwaukee.

Hispanic homicide victims-Milwaukee

Hispanic homicide victims-Milwaukee

The Washington Post is also developing a database of fatal shootings by police since 2015. It contains some good news: nationally the number of people who were killed by police but who turned out to be unarmed dropped substantially during this period.

Fatal shootings by Milwaukee Police since 2015

Fatal shootings by Milwaukee Police since 2015

It is striking how localized homicides are. Neighboring areas can have widely varying homicide problems, both in frequency and the rate at which they are solved.

The Post article includes interviews with a number of current and former police chiefs of other cities. One point they make almost universally is that solving homicides depends on a level of trust between residents in the community and the police. When that trust breaks down, it is very hard to find witnesses to crimes. Thus, Milwaukee’s relatively high arrest rate can be interpreted as a positive indicator of the relationship between the residents of stressed neighborhoods and the police.

9 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Solving Murders in Milwaukee”

  1. Dave says:

    I wonder what the difference is between what the MPD defines as a “clearance rate” and what this article defines as a “arrest rate”? Your article specifically refers to the Homicide Review Commission (HRC) work, but you fail to note the discrepancy between their clearance rate data and the Washington Post (WP) arrest rate data.

    The 2016 HRC report shows a 93% clearance rate for 2008. The WP work shows a ~72% arrest rate for 2008. This difference is striking and, in my view, changes the narrative from a “strongly declining 10 year rate of change” to a “moderately declining 10 year rate of change”.

    Any way you slice it, at one time more homicides were solved when compared to recent years. There is more to it than simply police-community relations. How dose philosophy, policies, practices, and deployment of resources correlate with these changes? To be more precise, if more resources are concentrated on crime prevention, how does that impact crime solving? Which mission should the MPD concentrate on?

  2. Dave says:

    Your article also concludes with the parting thought that “Milwaukee’s relatively high arrest rate can be interpreted as a positive indicator of the relationship between the residents of stressed neighborhoods and the police.”

    I encourage you to check out the 2017 Police Satisfaction Survey Report released by the Fire and Police Commission. There is a wealth of scientifically sound, Milwaukee-specific data in that report that can provide perspective and context for your chosen conclusion.

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    So do the murders.
    Top ten most violent city, top 8 worst city. Worst managed city. Car jackings, home invasions, burglaries, murders, all for one little city run by the Left.
    Kids cannot read in third grade, worst schools system in country yet the people on this page just blame everyone else. It is always someone elses fault according to the Left.

  4. Sam says:


    Are you waiting for the sky to fall on Milwaukee? Your broken record “critiques” are worthless Chicken Little.

  5. Dumbledore says:

    @Dave – I can think of several ways that a murder can be cleared without an arrest:

    1. Determination that situation was not murder, e.g., suicide, accident

    2. Murderer died during the crime, e.g. murder-suicide or murder-murder

    3. Murderer identified but died before arrest (separate from the crime)

    4. Murderer identified but fled the country

    5. Murderer identified but was incarcerated for life after the murder due to a different crime and MPD determines it is not worth the effort to bring additional charges

    All of these are messy situations that unfortunately MPD has to deal with regularly but they would result in the case being cleared.

  6. Bruce Thompson says:

    The number of homicides closed without an arrest is very small: an average of 3 per year or about 3%. I suspect that Dumbledore’s is right about the causes.

    Incidentally using the Post’s numbers the total Milwaukee homicides over the 11 years is 1,115. Using the Homicide Commission’s supplemented by the J-S for the last 2 years gives 1,118. The closeness suggest that they are pretty accurate.
    Bruce Thompson

  7. Dave says:

    @ Bruce:
    How close the total number of homicides are between the two sources does indeed inspire confidence in that measure. But the main thrust of the article is the arrest/clearance rate, not the number of homicides. Which measure should we trust, the WP or the HRC?

    @ Dumbledore:
    That is a good summary of situations that may be cleared without arrest. But as BT stated in post # 6, the number closed without arrest is quite small when compared with the large discrepancy between the HRC clearance rate data and the WP arrest rate data.

    Regardless, this line of inquiry is important. The Milwaukee community discusses crime rates all the time, but rarely do I hear discussion of clearance rates. I encourage readers to think about that fact for a minute and what it means in relation to important, broader policy discussions.

  8. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    it is nice we are finding the thugs but the purpose of Justice system is to stop people from being murdered, not just punish them, or in Milwaukee’ case:”Catch and release”.
    That alone makes Milwaukee top ten worst crime ridden cities in country .
    The Drug trade accounts for most of these murders.
    Now people want to up the ante by legalizing recreational drugs which will lead to more crime and battles between cartels.
    The DUI’s, crime, STD’s, pregnancies, long term deaths, overdoses and overdose deaths.

  9. Bruce Thompson says:

    Your comment forced me to go back to last HCR report, for 2015. There is very little discussion of clearance rates, just one graph. The HCR clearance rates run higher than the Post.
    2008 2015
    Post 73% 56%
    HCR 93% 60%
    That 93% looks awfully high to me and there is no info on how it was calculated. Note that the Post does not count the Closed without arrest in the clearances which might explain the discrepancy in the 2015 rates but not 2008.

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