- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2015

The national homicide “clearance rate” — that is, local police identifying and arresting killers — has slipped to 64.1 percent from more than 90 percent just 50 years ago amid shrinking budgets, higher closure standards and more crimes being committed by gangs and drug dealers who may have no local footprint and/or encourage a “no-snitch” mentality.

The Department of Justice is tapping six cities to take part in a grant program dubbed the “Homicide Investigation Enhancement, Training and Technical Assistance Project,” designed to improve some of the processes involved in solving violent crimes and identify best practices that can be shared from one community to another.

The goal is to help improve the murder clearance rate, and the program is kicking off within a month, with Baltimore being the first city selected to participate.

“We’re looking for cities that have a homicide challenge, that have issues of dealing with homicides that are open to having us take a look at their best practices,” said Chuck Wexler, the director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which is running the Justice Department homicide program. “This project is about how — from an investigative standpoint — they handle things that could be improved.”

David Carter, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice and director of the Intelligence Program at Michigan State University, said the reason clearance rates have dropped so much is a combination of tightening police budgets and more violence stemming from gang and drug-trafficking groups.

In those sorts of cases, murderers are harder to identify because they may or may not have a preexisting connection to those they have killed, making them harder to track down.

There’s also a cultural shift where gang members commonly promote a “don’t snitch” attitude among the communities dealings with the cops, making it hard for police to do their job, he said.

Homicide detectives often try to skirt this issue by asking gang investigators and drug investigators to circle up with their informants and see if they can provide clues as to who committed a murder, Mr. Carter said.

“Clearance rates” reflect arrests made and cases thus “cleared” by the police and sent to prosecutors’ offices; it does not refer to actual convictions for murder or lesser homicide crimes.

Baltimore’s murder clearance rate currently stands at 53.7 percent, according to Baltimore Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, even lower than the national average. Baltimore is beset with drugs and poverty, and ranks in the top 15 U.S. cities for every violent crime except forcible rape.

When announcing its participation in the Justice Department program, Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts said it wasn’t because his team wasn’t capable of tackling Baltimore’s crime, only that it’s so overworked it’s often hard to change gears.

It “doesn’t say that my team is not proficient. It doesn’t say that we can’t do it in-house. But when you’re driving 75 miles per hour, it’s very hard to change the tires,” Mr. Batts told reporters last week, when Baltimore’s participation in the program was announced.

“The experts that are coming will look at how we conduct our investigations, the type of training that our detectives receive . Essentially every aspect of a homicide investigation, from the first notification to the last day of testimony, will be under investigation to see how we can improve,” Mr. Davis told The Baltimore Sun.

Mr. Wexler’s team will be looking for procedural deficiencies in the homicide divisions of the six cities it evaluates, including Baltimore, and recommend ways the departments might improve upon their process of investigating and closing murder cases.

The forum is still debating over which other cities it will ask to participate in the program. Forum officials received a little less than $700,000 from the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2014 to embark on the reform initiative.

This type of program is much needed following a period of intense budget pressure and skewed priorities, said Adam Bates, a policy analyst with Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.

According to a Department of Justice survey, the economic downturn has severely impacted the budgets of local police departments.

Over one-third of the agencies that applied for 2011 Justice-sponsored officer hiring funding reported an operating budget drop of greater than 5 percent between 2009 and 2011, and nearly a quarter of American cities surveyed have made cuts to public safety budgets.

Amid these cuts, best-practice management is essential to help police departments around the country not further slip in their clearance numbers, said Mr. Bates.

“Some of these police departments aren’t engaged in the best practices,” Mr. Bates said. “And the idea behind these grants, and assistance grants, is to bring in outside consultants to see whether these departments are using the kinds of practices that have been shown to be effective in other kinds of jurisdictions.”

Some of these “best practices” include speed, studies show.

Lowering the homicide clearance rate in cities requires quick-response tactics, according to a 2013 report on the best practices for increasing homicide clearances. The 61-page report calls the first 48 hours of a homicide investigation the most critical.

“A homicide investigation consists of a complex array of tasks that must be performed, initially, over a short period of time, often under significant stress,” said Mr. Carter, who also authored the 2013 report.

“The tasks are further complicated because they must meet a range of legal standards, conform to scientific integrity for later forensic analysis or require dealing with challenging human relationships. Other tasks are influenced by external pressures — such as the community or elected officials — to ensure that the tasks are performed quickly, accurately and successfully,” he said.

These bureaucratic hurdles sometimes slow the process despite the importance of speed in getting a case cleared, he said.

Vernon Geberth, a retired New York City homicide cop and author of Practical Homicide Investigation, told NPR last month that the public doesn’t realize how high the standards are for cops to narrow in on murder suspects.

He said prosecutors nowadays demand that police deliver “open-and-shut cases” that will lead to quick plea bargains and/or a high conviction rate for the district attorney’s office. That number — often cited when district attorneys As run for reelection in those jurisdictions where it’s an elected office — reflects only verdicts in cleared cases.

Mr. Geberth said he thinks that standard sought by prosecutors is too high.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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