The Sad Irony of Homicide Solvability

A recent New York Daily News analysis of the NYPD's 2013 allocation of homicide investigators found a disproportionately higher number of homicide detectives in Manhattan than in the deadlier outer boroughs. The article suggests that the race of the victim contributes to departmental decisions regarding the allocation of the declining number of homicide investigators. The authors point out that this disparity results in a disproportionately high number of unsolved homicide cases in areas characterized by higher concentrations of ethnic minorities.

Not all homicides are the same, however, and to distinguish cases based solely on race neglects the more salient features of the homicidal interaction that we know better explain the reality of why cases go unsolved.

The number of investigators assigned to a case can affect whether a case is solved (or "closed"). The rest of the unfortunate story, however, is the other factors that contribute to the solvability of a homicide case. First, let's look at the typical unsolved (or "open') case in New York City in 2013. My read of the Daily News' numbers on the decedents' race, sex and age and the weapon used reveals that the cases least likely to be solved are those in which a black male between the ages of 18 and 24 years old is shot.

These characteristics precisely mirror those of the gun violence epidemic of the 1990s. In looking at shooting deaths then and now, we see that the perpetrator and decedent often had some prior relationship (e.g., rival group members, or drug dealer and buyer). Indeed, we are much more likely to be violently victimized by someone we know rather than by some random person on the street. We also know that many victims had prior involvement in the criminal justice system. And, but for the element of surprise or for a too-slow pull of the trigger, the victims in many cases could have just as easily been the suspect in the same incident.

The Daily News' numbers also show that the well-established relationship between age and criminal offending (e.g., the age-crime curve) holds true for age and criminal victimization too. Most (56 percent) of the 2013 homicide victims in New York were between the ages of 18 and 34, with many fewer victims at the younger and older ends of the spectrum.

These are the homicides that continue to ravage our inner cities. The types of horrific, random mass shootings that garner so much attention are the outliers with regard to their prevalence and to their solvability. (Can you think of a recent mass shooting that hasn't been solved?) The homicides of young black males in the inner-city are less likely to be solved -- not because of the victims' race, but because of untrusting relationships between the police and those witnesses that police look to for help in solving such cases.

We know that one of the strongest determinants of crime solvability is the information gathered by first responders and during the preliminary investigation. If witnesses are unwilling to talk to police on the scene or to investigators who show up later, then no increase in the number of investigators will close these cases.

The police responsibility, then, is to earn the respect and cooperation of citizens in the neighborhoods where these homicides occur. David Kennedy chronicles such a violence-reducing, community-building strategy in his book Don't Shoot. For our part, we can continue to bring attention to the real barriers to homicide solvability and to encourage the news media and the police to do the same.