How many unsolved murders are there? It's greater than the population of Des Moines

More than 200,000 cold cases since 1980

WASHINGTON D.C. - Think about this. More than 211,000 homicides committed since 1980 remain unsolved – a body count greater than the population of Des Moines, Iowa.

That figure is not readily apparent in the U.S. Department of Justice’s annual estimate of killings considered cleared through arrest, but a little digging at Scripps News revealed it.

The bottom line: Forget about what you see on the TV crime shows. Murders aren’t solved in 60 minutes by beautiful investigators surrounded by glitzy monitors and high-tech gadgets. 

Truth is homicides are less likely to be solved today than they were 40 years ago. Police fail to make an arrest in more than a third of the nation’s murders, resulting in an ever-increasing accumulation of cold cases.

“We are just starting to address the cold case issue,” said Mike Corrado, president of the International Homicide Investigators Association. “At our last national convention last year, we had a two-day breakout just on cold cases. We’ll be doing that again next year.”

Corrado is a homicide investigator in Atlantic City, N.J., which has more than 200 unsolved homicides according to FBI data, including the serial killings of four women found in 2006 in a drainage ditch near the city’s casino district. The women had been strangled or suffocated and left in the ditch over a period of months.

“We are still working that case today,” Corrado said.

The rates at which homicides are considered cleared – meaning someone was actually arrested and handed over to the courts for trial – have declined alarmingly in America. The FBI estimates that the homicide clearance rate in 2012 was only 64 percent, down from 90 percent reported in 1965 when the government first reported statistics.

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation 

In many communities, it has become statistically unlikely that a murder will be solved. The Detroit Police Department reported making arrests in only 34 of its 386 homicides in 2012, which is a solution rate of only 9 percent.

New Orleans reported solving only 15 percent of its 193 killings that year.

“The numbers of murders have increased so substantially over the years that the cold cases are overburdening many police departments,” said Florida attorney Paul Marino, a retired supervisor at the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office and chief counsel for the homicide investigators association. “Active duty detectives have a never-ending run of homicides. To work older cases, they need some sort of support.”

Just about every major police department faces a bewildering number of cold cases. Atlanta, Ga., has about 1,800 unsolved cases going back to 1965, while Phoenix, Ariz., has nearly 2,400 and Cleveland, Ohio, has about 2,100 unresolved killings still on the books.

“It’s a question of economics and of having sufficient numbers of personnel so that our people can do the routine policing on the streets,” Marino said. “Police are dedicated folk trying to do their jobs. But they need the resources.”

Although the total number and the rate of murder have both declined since the 1990s – when killings peaked at nearly 24,000 a year – the remaining 14,000 or so committed in recent years tend to be more difficult to solve. Crimes of passion have declined as courts have taken more aggressive action in domestic violence cases. But gang- and drug-related homicides continue and are much more difficult to solve because witnesses are reluctant to challenge organized crime.

Some police departments in recent years have stopped reporting to the FBI how many homicide arrests they make each year, making it impossible to know exactly how many cold cases are still on the books.

Among these non-reporting departments are New York City, Chicago and Gary, Indiana, where police recently arrested a suspected serial killer who said he’d been active since the mid-1990s.

Scripps News calculated the number of cold cases across the country by using the U.S. Department of Justice’s annual estimate for the percentage of killings that are cleared through arrest, taking the remainder of that figure (the percentage that aren’t solved) and multiplying it against the federal estimate for total homicides committed each year.

[Also on DecodeDC: States review the roles and power of police]

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