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Nearly Half of All U.S. Murders Went Unsolved in 2020

The murder clearance rate in the United States has fallen to its lowest point in more than 50 years, according to analysis of FBI statistics. Clearing a case means police have made an arrest or closed the case due to other reasons (if the offender is dead or serving a sentence on another case, for example); it does not mean that the arrestee was convicted. But in the last seven months of 2020, most murders went unsolved, said Thomas Hargrove, who runs the Murder Accountability Project.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, police reported solving about seven in every 10 murders. In 2020, only 54 percent of homicides were cleared through the arrest of the offender, the FBI estimated. Meanwhile, homicides climbed nearly 30 percent that year.

That volume of crime is putting significant pressure on police departments, CBS News reported. In Jackson, Mississippi, for example, police responded to 153 murders in the past year, but the city has just eight homicide detectives to manage the caseload.

Police are also receiving fewer tips and having trouble obtaining help from witnesses because the trust between law enforcement and the public has been degraded following multiple recent high-profile cases of police misconduct.

Meanwhile, the murder clearance rate is uneven—both geographically and demographically. In some U.S. states, police report solving as many as 80 percent of all murders, but in other U.S. states, it’s as low as 40 percent.

Black victims’ murders are also less likely to be solved than murders with white victims. This issue isn’t new—since the 1990s, murders of Black Americans have been solved at consistently lower rates than other demographics, but the gap is widening. Between 2016 and 2020, the average clearance rate for Black homicide victims in Los Angeles was 45 percent, compared to 70 percent for white victims in Los Angeles, CBS News’ analysis found.

In a podcast interview with The Atlantic reporter Derek Thompson, crime analyst Jeff Asher cited multiple possible reasons for the dramatic contrast between 1960s' clearance rates and the rate today.

For starters, the 1960s and 1970s crime data is likely skewed—many police departments reported a 90 to 100 percent clearance rate, which is unlikely to be true.

The 1966 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Miranda v. Arizona improved the rights of citizens who were being questioned by police, which resulted in a decline in the national clearance rates. This does not necessarily mean that perpetrators went free by leveraging Miranda, but that many mid-century convictions could have been obtained by unethical practices, and heightened awareness of citizens’ rights heightened police ethics, Asher and Thompson said.

District attorneys (DAs) and juries have higher standards of evidence today, which raises the bar for detectives investigating crimes.

“Cops are less likely to make an arrest if they don’t think they have the evidentiary base that the DA will accept,” Asher said.

But the overarching explanation for the decline in clearances during the past several decades is the prevalence of firearms, Asher says. Gun murder rates in the United States are significantly higher than they were 50 years ago.

More than 45,000 people died by gun violence in the United States in 2020, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Most of those cases were suicides, but more than 19,000 firearms-related deaths were homicides. Firearms were far and away the most frequently used weapon for homicides, accounting for 79 percent of all cases, compared to 68 percent in 2011.

“In the 1960s, about 50 percent of murders were committed with guns,” Asher said. “Today, almost 80 percent of murders are committed with guns. And the share of murders committed by firearms has crept up at a nearly identical rate to the steady decline of murder clearances.”

Firearm murders are harder to solve—they take place at a distance, there are fewer witnesses, and there is less physical evidence, he added.

“Guns make murders much harder to solve, and it leads to lower clearance rates everywhere,” Asher said.