Last week, the Philadelphia Police Department launched a new website to help detectives find suspects in unsolved murders. The website, PhillyUnsolvedMurders.com, allows people to submit anonymous tips about homicides and provides an opportunity for loved ones of those lost to leave messages and upload a photo.
The pages of photos, mostly of young black men, are a reminder of the devastating toll of losing about one person every day to homicide. But it is also a reminder that in Philadelphia, your odds of getting away with murder are better than your odds of winning a coin toss.
In crime statistics, a homicide clearance rate refers to the percent of homicides that led to an arrest, charge, or prosecution during a specific year. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the national homicide clearance rate is about 60 percent. That already-low clearance rate is the declared goal of the Philadelphia Police Department. In fiscal year 2017, the homicide clearance rate in Philadelphia was 37 percent. In 2018, that rate increased to 47 percent.
Increasing a homicide clearance rate is possible but takes a concentrated effort — and resources.
According to a 2018 Washington Post analysis of homicide-clearing rates, for most large police departments, a lower caseload also meant a higher homicide arrest rate. (Philadelphia didn’t send the Post data on homicide unit staffing.)
According to April 2019 payroll data obtained by The Inquirer from Philadelphia’s Human Resources Department, there are only 52 homicide detectives in the police department. The city is on track for about 350 homicides this year, a caseload of seven homicides per detective. (There are 17 other sworn officers in the homicide unit including a captain, lieutenants, sergeants, and two police officers. The police declined to comment on homicide unit staffing.)
But increasing staffing alone is not enough. In response to a combined homicide and clearance rate crisis, Chicago increased the number of homicide detectives in its police force to 208 in 2016 — a caseload of about three per detective — but still cleared only 1 in 4 homicides, according to the Post.
What cities that managed to increase their homicide clearance rate have in common was police commissioners who made solving homicides a top priority: commissioning studies on homicide patterns, investing more in detectives and forensics, updating investigative practices and technology, and bolstering training.
There is also a dark side to an obsession over clearance rates. Throughout the 1990s, the average homicide clearance rate in Philadelphia was above 70 percent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 12 people convicted of 1990s homicides were exonerated — six of them this year. Zealous prosecution and coercive tactics might lead to a higher clearance rate, but they do not solve murders.
The next police commissioner should remember the faces on PhillyUnsolvedMurders.com when he or she creates a vision for the department.