- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 28, 2007

More than one in five homicide cases closed in the District from 2002 to 2006 ended without a prosecution, according to a government audit released yesterday.

In 2005, for instance, the Metropolitan Police Department closed 119 homicide cases; 83 were closed by arrest, and 36 — more than 30 percent — were closed “administratively.”

Administrative closures occur when a suspect has been identified, but “circumstances exist that prevent the successful prosecution of the offender” and he or she is released, according to a D.C. Office of Inspector General audit of police department homicide closures.

The report found there isn’t always a direct relationship between the number of closed homicide cases and the number of offenders removed from the streets.

Overall homicide closure rates for the past six years were 61 percent, compared with the national average of 62 percent. The number of homicides has fallen steadily, from 262 in 2002 to 169 last year.

The report by Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby notes that the police department’s policy of closing homicide cases administratively as well as by arrest is in line with other jurisdictions. However, auditors raised questions about detectives’ ability to reopen or further investigate a case once it has been closed.

“During fieldwork for the audit, we were informed by responsible MPD officials that there is no mechanism to reopen or further investigate a case once it is closed,” auditors wrote.

But a spokeswoman for the police department yesterday said that detectives can and do investigate closed cases if additional information surfaces.

Spokeswoman Traci Hughes said most administrative closures occur because witnesses come forward to identify a suspect after the offender’s death.

Other times the police department has identified a suspect, but prosecutors determine there may be insufficient evidence to take the case to trial, she said.

In a written response to the report, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said the department has kept track of the number of cases closed administratively and by arrest since 2002.

“The violent-crimes branch closes homicide cases administratively in accordance with FBI guidelines,” Chief Lanier wrote.

She also noted that the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility signs off on all cases before they’re closed administratively to ensure they meet several requirements.

“Most of the department’s exceptional closures are cases in which witnesses come forward to identify homicide offenders only after the perpetrator was killed,” Chief Lanier wrote.

“Certainly, we hope to reach a point when there will be fewer murders in the city and when one is committed, community members will want to come forward to identify the offender and feel safe in doing so.”

The audit reviewed 1,287 homicide case files from 2001 to 2006, finding more killings are caused by arguments than by drugs and gangs combined.

During the past six years, there were 300 homicides resulting from arguments, compared with 270 drug-related killings and 17 homicides stemming from gang violence, according to a D.C. Office of Inspector General report.

The audit also found most homicides occur in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Wards 7 and 8, with the highest unemployment rates, also had the greatest number of homicides, auditors found.

Auditors noted “wide fluctuations” in the number of homicides and the closure rates among the city’s wards.

The city’s wealthiest wards generally had the lowest number of homicides and highest closure rates, while closure rates in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 5th and 6th districts were lower.