People are increasingly getting away with murder in America’s big cities, with police saying they are no longer able to roll low-level offenders to get them to snitch on big targets.
Law enforcement sources say the criminal justice reform movement sweeping states, combined with policies of liberal prosecutors, leave them with fewer cooperating witnesses whom they need to crack homicide and other serious criminal cases.
“Criminal justice reform is crushing investigations. I apprehended individuals on something minor, and they wanted to make a deal because they didn’t want to go to jail. Now we don’t have the snitch pool of low-level offenders willing to talk about bigger fish. It’s huge and it’s such a simple concept,” said Paul Beakman, a former police officer and former president of the Fraternal Order of Police Western New York Lodge 103.
It’s showing up in the numbers.
The District of Columbia’s police force has cleared 49% of its homicide cases through July of this year, compared with 65% during the same period last year. The Metropolitan Police Department ended last year with a 69% clearance rate.
In Cincinnati, police have cleared 61% of homicide cases so far this year, compared with 71% at this point last year. It finished 2021 with a 67% clearance rate.
In New York City, the homicide clearance rate was 80% for the first quarter of this year, far above the national average of 54% but a drop from 86% during the first three months of 2021.
Paul DiGiacomo, president of the New York City Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union that represents active and retired detectives, said police have lost their leverage over suspects.
He said resources such as forensics laboratories and DNA machines are no match for solid witness statements in homicide investigations. Such statements, in exchange for deals, enable police to work the ladder to nab bigger fish.
Mr. DiGiacomo said a 2020 state law also has left police without the ability to promise anonymity to some witnesses.
Under the law, prosecutors must give defense attorneys the names and contact data of anyone with information relevant to a case within 15 days of arraignment, even if the person won’t testify at trial. Orders protecting witnesses’ identities now need judges’ approval.
Before the law was enacted, only the names and addresses of witnesses who were going to testify had to be disclosed, giving others the benefit of cooperating and having their identities protected.
“We used to have witnesses, but informants and witnesses’ complaints are put out there now, and that scares people from cooperating in these crimes,” he said.
Tampa, Florida; Boston; and Dallas have district attorneys who champion far-left platforms, including abandoning cash bail, declining to prosecute some low-level charges, not pursuing small drug cases and increasing the scrutiny of police officers.
Clearance rates appear to be headed down in those cities. Boston police solved 31% of their homicides through the first half of the year, the Tampa Police Department cleared 49% of its homicide cases, and officers in Dallas solved 54%.
All three departments finished 2021 with homicide clearance rates of 78% to 85%.
The drop surprises criminologists, who say clearance rates are usually much higher at the beginning of the year.
“The first three or four months are always higher because cases from the prior year get cleared in January or February. If you look at clearance rates over the year, they tend to be slightly declining as the year goes on,” said Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminology professor who studies clearance rates.
He said each city has unique reasons for a rise or decline in its clearance rate.
Eddy Durkin, a spokesperson for the Tampa Police Department, said city police expect their final 2022 rate to improve once they get data and DNA evidence, which takes time to process.
“There is little doubt the 2022 number will greatly improve as each case proceeds,” Mr. Durkin said.
In Chicago, where the homicide clearance rate was 50% at the end of last year, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office refused to bring charges in 131 homicide cases.
The lack of charges in some of these cases has resulted in criticism from Chicago police unions and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. After two Chicago police officers and a U.S. marshal were shot in separate incidents last month, Ms. Lightfoot griped about prosecutors’ “exacting standards” and insisted that people accused of serious violent crimes should not be let out of jail without bail.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has suggested that a lack of witnesses is hurting prosecutions. He proposed spending $20 million to revive a neglected witness protection program that would finance relocation expenses for people who fear retaliation for cooperating with police in violent crime cases. The program hasn’t been funded in more than a decade.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has offered aid and other resources to cities with underperforming clearance rates. Justice Department experts will arrive at the city, look at the department and offer it a plan to improve its rate.
Mr. Wellford said the program has helped struggling departments solve more homicide cases.
“The kinds of things the BJA offers are not expensive items, like training people better and managing them better,” he said. “Those areas are more policy and administrative changes than big-ticket items.”