2012’s Record Low Number of Homicides Isn’t Telling the Whole Story

The 82 percent closure rate of cases is not necessarily accurate.

By: Harry Jaffe

Kudos to DC street cops and detectives for shutting down drug networks, curbing gangs, gaining the trust of the community, and getting guns off the streets—all of which contribute to lowering the District’s homicide rate. No doubt demographics helped lower the number to 88, the lowest since 1961. Poor people have been moved out and are moving out of the city.

Credit goes up the chain of command to police chief Cathy Lanier and even to Mayor Vince Gray, for supporting cops. Notably, no teenagers under the age of 18 were killed.

But when Lanier and Gray hyped the 2012 homicide number, they also took credit for an 82 percent closure rate. Sounds as if 64 murder cases were solved, the killers taken off the street, the victims’ families allowed to grieve with some closure.

But that’s not what “closure” means to the Metropolitan Police Department.

DC police follow the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which allows it to call a case closed if an arrest is made. A case can also be “closed” if someone charged with murder cannot be prosecuted because they are dead or being prosecuted elsewhere.

Police also lump cases closed in past years into its 2012 statistics. If police arrested someone last year for a murder committed in 2010, for example, it accrues to the 2012 closure rate.

The MPD does not reopen cases if the people they arrest are not prosecuted and wind up back on the street. For example, federal prosecutors indicted two people charged with murder but later dismissed the cases. Would these cases be “unclosed?”

For a more accurate measure of how well the criminal justice system performs at taking murderers off the streets, it’s best to check the conviction numbers with the US Attorney, whose prosecutors try murders.

Most telling: Almost all of the cases involving murders from 2012 remain pending, according to the US Attorney’s office. Defendants might have been arrested, but they have neither pleaded guilty nor had their cases come to trial. For prosecutors, none of these cases are closed.

Here’s what we know with the latest numbers from federal prosecutors:

• As of November 7, prosecutors had obtained 73 homicide convictions, which translates to a nearly 90 percent conviction rate. Pretty good. Keep in mind, most of these murders were committed before 2012. And prosecutors only bring cases to trial they expect to win.

• Of those convictions, 37 came from guilty pleas. Prosecutors brought cases against 43 defendants for homicide, but they got only 36 convictions. That means seven alleged murderers got off. Again—are they “unclosed”?

True, the MPD is following official guidelines in reporting its closure rate, but it would be more accurate and transparent—dare I say honest—to report arrests with the year of the alleged homicide, cases closed for “exceptional” reasons, and actual convictions. Police should also be honest about cases in which they arrest an alleged defendant but prosecutors fail to get a plea or conviction.

But that might be too much to ask.