Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

City Ranks Higher In Solving Murders

Many cities don't solve the majority of murders. Milwaukee does far better.

By - Aug 6th, 2021 03:18 pm
Police Administration Building, 951 N. James Lovell St. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Police Administration Building, 951 N. James Lovell St. Photo by Christopher Hillard.

Across the nation, big cities are finding it harder to solve murders and assaults involving guns. That no doubt includes Milwaukee, but it is doing better than many cities, as research by The Trace and the New York Times shows.

The Trace is a non-profit journalism site which covers gun-related news in the U.S. and it has documented a decline in the clearance rate for shootings in big cities. As a story co-written by Buzzfeed in 2019 reported: “In cities from coast to coast, the odds that police will solve a shooting are abysmally low and dropping…In 2016, Los Angeles made arrests for just 17 percent of gun assaults, and Chicago for less than 12 percent. The same year, San Francisco managed to make arrests in just 15 percent of the city’s nonfatal shootings. In Boston, the figure was just 10 percent.”

“Beneath the systemic failure to solve gun crime is a lack of police resources,” the story found. “Some police departments are so understaffed that a large share of shooting cases receive only a cursory effort, or don’t get passed to a detective at all. In Oakland’s Felony Assault Unit, more than 40 percent of cases were not assigned to an investigator in 2017. Portland, Oregon, did not assign 38 percent of its felony assaults that year.”

story co-written by the two organizations broke down the decline in the arrests of shooters and found:

  1. Police are much less likely to make an arrest in a murder or assault involving a gun, with arrests in 46% of murders involving guns versus 75% of non-firearm murders.
  2. “The failure to solve fatal shootings of black and Hispanic victims appears to account for the entire decline in murder clearance rates,” with the clearance rate for cases involving black and Hispanic victims killed with guns dropping by some 20 percentage points since the 1980s.
  3. “If a gun assault is not solved quickly, odds are it won’t be solved at all.” About 20 percent of gun murders and assaults are solved by the next day and most within 30 days. After that few of those crimes are solved.
  4. “Detectives are stretched so thin in some cities that many nonfatal shootings don’t get investigated at all.”
  5. “When cities fail to solve nonfatal shootings, homicides often follow.” An analysis of data in Baltimore offered strong evidence of this.

A recent Upshot column by Times reporter Jeff Asher followed up on this research. City police agencies where a smaller percentage of murders involve guns are more likely to solve the cases, he noted. “New York City stands out with a murder clearance rate of 86 percent in 2019, a year when only 54 percent of the city’s murders involved a firearm. By contrast, the same year in Dayton, Ohio, the police cleared only 21 percent of their murders, 94 percent of which were done with a firearm.”

With that in mind, Asher created a graph of cities nationally that shows cities with a lower percentage of gun murders tend to solve a higher percentage of the murders. The graph in the online version of the story is less complete, but the print edition includes some 50 cities, including Milwaukee, with Gary solving only about 5% of its murders, DeKalb county (in the Atlanta area) solving slightly more than 15% and Cleveland less than 30%. Milwaukee is doing better than most cities, solving about 63% of its murders even though a pretty high percentage (around 85%) were committed with guns. That may just be luck or may mean Milwaukee is assigning more staff to murders. A study in Phoenix found that there’s a greater chance of success with more investigators and patrol officers assigned to a murder case, the column noted.

The data for the Times graph was from 2019 and since then Milwaukee suffered an explosion in murders, with 189 homicides in 2020, nearly doubling the number from the year before. A similar uptick was seen in many cities, with the pandemic blamed as the main driver of this trend. But the longer term factor is still guns. Milwaukee police confiscated more than 3,000 guns in 2020, an 18% increase from 2019, as Elliot Hughes reported.

One thought on “Back in the News: City Ranks Higher In Solving Murders”

  1. huk730 says:

    Good article but the notion that clearance rates are related to hiring more police is mainly a talking point for the MPD and the union. Confidence police will actually follow up and investigate is much more important. In Chicago police enjoy little confidence in the Black community where 3/4 of all homicides take place. Milwaukee’s high clearance rate indicates a higher degree of community confidence in follow through than in Chicago and other large cities. Legitimacy is more vital than manpower.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us