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Solved homicides in Cook Co. drop to 36%

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER | Since 1980, homicides solved in Cook County have fallen to 36%, reflecting a national trend

May 29, 2010

The percentage of homicides that go unsolved in the United States has risen alarmingly even as the homicide rate has fallen to levels last seen in the 1960s.

Despite dramatic improvements in DNA analysis and other breakthroughs in forensic science, police fail to make an arrest in more than one-third of all homicides. National clearance rates for murder and manslaughter have fallen from about 90 percent in the 1960s to below 65 percent in recent years.

In Cook County, only about one third of murders since 1980 have been solved, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of crime records provided by the FBI. Police solved only 35 percent of the murders in Chicago in 2008, the FBI records show.

"We'd expect that -- with more police officers, more scientific tools likes DNA analysis and more computerized records -- we'd be clearing more homicides now with more resources," said Bill Hagmaier, executive director of the International Homicide Investigators Association and retired chief of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. "But the clearance rates have fallen drastically."

Nearly 185,000 killings went unsolved from 1980 to 2008, the Scripps study found.

Experts say that murders have become tougher to solve because there are fewer crimes of passion, where the assailant is easier to identify, and more drug- and gang-related killings. Many police chiefs -- especially in areas with skyrocketing numbers of unsolved crimes -- blame a lack of cooperation by witnesses and even surviving victims of violent crime.

In Chicago, officials have launched a program called "Silence Kills" to encourage residents who know details about crimes to tell the police. In announcing the program in February, Mayor Daley said, "One of the most troubling parts of the violence against our young people is the code of silence in many neighborhoods that protects the gang-bangers and drug dealers who are killing our children."

Still, some city police departments routinely solve most of their homicides, even the tough ones, while others are mired in growing stacks of unsolved cases. While only 22 percent are solved in New Orleans and just 21 percent in Detroit, authorities solved 75 percent of the killings that same year in Philadelphia, 92 percent in Denver and 94 percent in San Diego.

The average solution rate fell in 63 of the nation's 100 largest police departments.

"We've concluded that the major factor is the amount of resources police departments place on homicide clearances and the priority they give to homicide clearances," said University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford, who led a landmark study into how police can improve murder investigations.