Just Catch the Killers

Solving homicide cases is the best way to prevent future ones.
September 2016
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Like many mayors, New Orleans’ Mitch Landrieu is trying to stop people from killing each other in his city. In an article in Governing’s May issue, J.B. Wogan describes Landrieu’s staff as seeing homicide as “a problem driven by forces largely outside the mayor’s control -- poverty, unemployment, substandard education, inadequate housing and regional migration trends.”

Actually, for mayors who struggle with how to respond to homicide, the answer is right in front of them: Focus on arresting those who commit murders. Three different ways of looking at violence in our communities bring me to this conclusion.

First, there is Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside: a True Story of Murder in America, which grew out of her reporting on homicide for the Los Angeles Times. Leovy writes that her book is “about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.” She raises provocative ideas and destroys several myths. She argues persuasively, for example, that gang violence is the result of the failure of police to enforce laws against violent offenses. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause,” she writes.

Then there is the Murder Accountability Project, which has built a massive online data set of homicides and case clearances searchable by lots of variables, including jurisdiction and victims’ age, race and gender. Thomas Hargrove, the organization’s chairman, says that the “failure to solve murders is primarily a political decision” to devote inadequate resources to the problem. Hargrove’s data show a strong relationship between case clearances and homicide rates.

Finally, there is Philadelphia under former Mayor Michael Nutter. By 2006, the city’s homicide case clearance rate had fallen to 56 percent. Nutter and his police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, made case clearance a priority, devoting more resources to it. In 2008, Nutter’s first year as mayor, the clearance rate rose to 75 percent. The clearance rate, Nutter says, is an indicator of community trust. “Citizens want to have us lock up bad people.”

Nutter says that improving the clearance rate also gave officers on the streets more confidence, which fits with one of Leovy’s observations. One of the L.A. homicide supervisors had become convinced, she writes, “that catching killers built law -- that successful homicide investigations were the most direct means at the cops’ disposal of countering the informal self-policing and street justice that was the scourge of urban black populations.”

Lots of attention has been focused lately on abuses by the police, but it’s not enough to just stop doing the wrong kind of policing. It’s vital that we do much more of the right kind. Spending the time and resources needed to arrest and convict those who commit violent crimes not only will reduce the rate at which those crimes occur but will also go a long way toward restoring trust between the police and the people they protect and serve.