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The Plummeting Rate Of Solved Murders In The Capitol City

Columbus murder clearance rate has been cut nearly in half since the 90’s

It only took a quick search of the Ohio Attorney General’s website for me to find them. Just two hyperlinks and a keyword search to specify city and there they were staring back at me. Hundreds of them, with cold smiles and vacant eyes. The victims of unsolved murders, photos donated by friends and family with the hopes that someone will see them, that they’ll remember some crucial detail, that they’ll step outside of their fear and insecurities and speak up. I was taken aback by their sheer number, scrolling past each bio and clicking page-next, over and over again. They kept staring back passionless, restrained, but expectantly, as though they were just biding time. The ones without photos were almost worse. Instead of a smiling image or, at the very least, a mugshot, they were resigned to a haunting default silhouette. Neutral and sexless, they began to pile up one after another as I scrolled on, eventually outnumbering the victims that were fortunate enough to have pictures. I felt compelled to witness them all. They began to form an endless row of headstones and memorial markers, of names and dates and case numbers. I made it to page 42 before I had to stop myself. I can’t tell you how many more there were and, to be honest, I’ll probably regret never knowing.

According to data released by the Murder Accountability Project (MAP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to making murder and law enforcement statistics available to the public, Columbus has seen a steady increase in unsolved murders since the late 90s. The data is compiled from a combination of information released by local law enforcement and federal agencies where it’s then made available to the public on their website. In 1998 the number of murders in Columbus reached 78, 72 of which went on to be solved. By 2005 the total number of killings had become 103 while only 58 of which were claimed to have been cleared and in 2011 that ratio had dropped to 20 solved deaths out of 87, less than a fourth of the killers being brought to justice.

Decades are somewhat arbitrary units of time measurement, but in the 90’s Columbus police solved 61.25% of homicides. In the aughts, that fell to 39.42%.

In the first half of this decade, (2015 being the last year we have data), the clearance rate has fallen further, to 30.77%.

That sort of data isn’t talked about. The interest of the general public has always been focused chiefly on general crime rates rather than the number of crimes actually solved. Because of this, prevention has become the primary focus for law enforcement. It’s important to note, however, that the number of homicides in the city hasn’t increased or declined by any significant margin in the last 15 years.

Most surprisingly, the national average of murders committed by strangers in which the victim-offender relationship was known has been shown to have dropped significantly, a factor that contributes heavily to unsolved crime.

Between 1993 and 2008 the national average was between 21 and 28 percent. As of a study later done in 2014 that number had dropped to 11.5.

The Murder Accountability Project believes:

  • Declining homicide clearance rates are a “failure of will” by local political leaders
  • When governors, mayors, county supervisors, city councils, county sheriffs, and police chiefs make homicide clearance a priority, arrest rates for murders usually improve, often dramatically

To better understand the possible reasonings behind these numbers it’s important to open dialogue with the public servants responsible for them. “Law enforcement’s been under attack, they clearly have” said one federal agent I interviewed. He sat comfortably in a leather chair, motioning passionately and leaning forward every so often when going into detail, “I’m not going to tell you that every police officer is honest,” he continued, “but [the ones that aren’t] they’re a very small percent.” When asked if this public criticism of law enforcement affects criminal investigations his answer was resolute; “Clearly it does.”

Intensive scrutiny from the public eye is certainly a possible deterrent when it comes to clearing a case, but it probably adds little comfort to the friends and family of the victim. I couldn’t help but think about that list of names and faces, about all those affected by their absence. Grief stricken relatives given no closure, teaching themselves to adapt each day to a world where justice wasn’t a concrete inevitability, slowly accepting that it may not exist for them at all.

That wasn’t, however, the only possible reasoning clearing a case could be difficult. The limited exchange of information between departments and agencies could also hinder the success of an investigation. “Whoever has the most information wins.” He described, “when you ask local law enforcement, they typically don’t like the feds because they take information and that’s all they want. They don’t share a lot.” He explained it as “Stovepipe Intelligence” which is defined as a “metaphorical term which recalls a stovepipe‘s function as an isolated vertical conduit, and has been used, in the context of intelligence, to describe several ways in which raw intelligence information may be presented without proper context.” In other words, the investigation or gathering of intelligence without the sharing of said intelligence between different agencies or those across state lines. Many times the key to closing an investigation or case lies with the information another agency already has, and because communication is often times difficult between these organizations the information gets ignored, or worse, they don’t even know that they have it. Characterizing most law enforcement as being “type-A” personality (aggressive) he goes on to explain that, “you need to be that type of person to succeed in your job, but your challenge is to get all of those personalities to work with you. It’s a challenge within agencies and also among [other] agencies.”

With the innovations of technology and the accessibility of science and data to local law enforcement, it’s still surprising to see that clearance numbers aren’t only not rising but are rather on the decline. Another possible reasoning behind this may be as simple as higher standards for arrests. When an investigative crime is “cleared” that means an arrest was made, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a conviction, something prosecutors are all too aware of. The federal agent would shake his head from time to time, explaining how difficult investigative work had generally become in the last few decades. Not only were there such legal roadblocks but the sophistication and raw power of crime had evolved. Where there was always the challenge of getting witnesses to speak up, the fear had only become more apparent, he observed, particularly in high-crime areas. “I hope that it actually helps those neighborhoods and it isn’t all political talk,” he said of the mayor’s new community safety initiative, a policy designed to increase police presence in specific areas of the city, “There are good people there.” Again though, the focus was generally on crime prevention rather than case clearance. A dubious answer from city government given the public opinion of stop and frisk policies and growing friction between the police and the communities they’ve pledged to protect.

As we talked of the culture involved with police work and all the obstacles involved, both internal and external, there had been a question I wanted to ask, nagging at the back of my mind during the entire interview. His eyes lit up with a fervent passion as he went into detail on various cases, his hands gestured excitedly. I knew the answer but I had to ask anyway before wrapping up; “Do you ever miss it? The work, the investigations?” He nodded once, firmly and absolute. “Of course. I’d do it again if could,” and then his eyes looked off at nothing in particular, reminiscing over the exploits of times past. He snapped back suddenly, coming back to the present dragging with him an epiphany, “you know what, hold on.” He left, coming back a short time later with a stack of photos that he plopped down in front of me. They were all older images of himself from around 30 years ago, smiling with stacks of cash and drugs that he had seized from various criminals. For him, clearing a case brought tremendous satisfaction. That’s what the job was there for and these were his trophies, proof of that game winning touchdown. He beamed at me and I couldn’t help but smile back.

My mind cataloged all those images. Pictures of federal agents, faces flushed with victory and achievement, but also those of the victims. Their ghostly grins and smiles, eyes pleading for closure. I wanted to be able to help them, to grant that them the solace that I was, of course, incapable of providing. I couldn’t help but think that there was some clue hidden in the federal agent’s words. Some truth in that one, simple statement, stayed with me;

Whoever has the information wins.

Columbus Police Department was contacted for comment on this story, but did not respond before publication.