STUDY FINDS HOMICIDE DETECTIVES WORK AGGRESSIVELY TO SOLVE ALL CASES, REGARDLESS OF VICTIM RACE
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The race of homicide victims doesn’t affect whether police will solve the victim’s murder or not, according to a study of one city’s police department.
Researchers found no evidence that homicide detectives spent less time or effort on cases involving African-American victims, as some police critics have suggested.
The high public visibility of murder cases and the fact that homicide detectives are judged entirely on how many cases they solve mean that all murder cases receive similar treatment, said Richard Lundman, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
“Our results suggest homicide detectives work aggressively to clear all homicides, regardless of the race, sex or social class of the victims involved,” Lundman said.
Lundman conducted the study with Janice Puckett, a former graduate student at Ohio State. Their results are published in the current issue of the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.
The researchers examined all 802 murders that occurred in Columbus, Ohio – the nation’s 16th largest city in 1990 – between 1984 and 1992. The homicide rate in Columbus was similar to rates in the rest of the nation’s 50 largest cities during this time period.(The Columbus rate was 21.6 per 100,000 population in 1991, compared to 24.8 per 100,000 in the nation’s 50 largest cities.)
Lundman said they looked at a variety of factors related to the victims of homicides – such as age, sex, race and social class – to see if these measures were in any way related to the likelihood that the murders would be solved.
Studies by Lundman and many other researchers have shown that police do pay attention to characteristics such as race when dealing with low-level offenses such as traffic violations. But there has been little research on how extra-legal factors such as race affect homicide investigations.
The results of this study showed that murders that occurred in lower-social-class neighborhoods – as defined by U.S. Census figures – were solved at similar rates to murders that occurred in higher-social-class neighborhoods.
Direct measures of victim race and gender also showed no relation to murder clearance rates.
Homicides in predominantly Black neighborhoods and integrated neighborhoods – as defined by U.S. Census tracts -- were solved significantly less often than homicides in white neighborhoods, Lundman said. About 70 percent of all murders in Black census tracts were solved, compared to 79 percent in white neighborhoods. But this doesn’t mean that homicide detectives aren’t working as hard on cases in Black neighborhoods, Lundman said.
His interviews with detectives suggests that “citizens in African-American communities have less trust in police and therefore provide police with less information” during murder investigations. The result is that homicides are harder to solve.
Lundman emphasized that this lack of trust in police is well-earned in most cases.
“Cops have earned the suspicion of citizens in African-American neighborhoods,” Lundman said. “Researchers have long found that street-level police officers bring a more heavy-handed, intrusive style of policing to African-American neighborhoods. That leads to tension and a lack of trust. So it is no surprise that homicide detectives don’t always get the same level of cooperation in Black neighborhoods that they get in white neighborhoods.”
But still, the study found that actual victim characteristics – such as whether the victims were Black or white – didn’t affect whether murders were solved, once the neighborhood where they were killed was taken into account.
“If detectives were truly not giving attention to homicides of African Americans, there should be indicators in our measures of victim race, but we didn’t find such evidence,” he said.
It’s no surprise that homicide detectives would give equal attention to homicides of Blacks, even if street-level police discriminate against African Americans, according to Lundman.
Street-level police officers can get away with devaluing crimes against Blacks because most of what they do involves low-visibility minor crimes, he said. “Homicide is different. Members of the general public take homicide seriously, and the media devotes sustained attention to homicide.”
In addition, police officials have no other way to evaluate homicide
detectives other than how many cases they solve. So it is in the best
interest of detectives to solve every murder they can, he said.