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Why are unsolved murders more common in certain communities?

Studying more than 50,000 homicides over the course of a decade in 50 of the largest cities, a team of reporters at the Washington Post have pinpointed the places where murders are common but arrests are rare. Amna Nawaz talks with Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post about why some cities may have lower arrest rates.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, the problem of why too many homicides remain unsolved with no arrests.

    Amna Nawaz looks at a new analysis from The Washington Post.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the team at The Post studied data from more than 50,000 homicides over the course of a decade in 50 of the largest cities.

    Reporters found that in some cities and, more pointedly, in particular sections of certain cities, murders are common, but arrests can be rare. In fact, The Post found that, in 34 of the 50 cities, there's now a lower arrest rate for murders than a decade ago.

    That can often be the case in neighborhoods that are home to mostly low-income residents of color.

    Wesley Lowery is a national reporter at The Washington Post and led that reporting team.

    Wesley, welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Thanks so much for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you about this now.

    Those low arrest zones you mentioned and we talked out you found in your reporting, what are the commonalities? What do those places share?

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Of course.

    So, what we did, again, is we mapped the homicides going back about a decade, looking not just where violence is, but where unsolved violence, where violence goes unchecked. And so we were looking at zones where there was a high level of violence and a low level of that violence resulting in an arrest.

    Now, what these communities share, there are some similarities and some differences. They vary. You might get an idea in your head of what the place looks like. Maybe it's run-down or maybe it's exclusively poor.

    And it's true that in, many of these neighborhoods, these are low-income minority communities. But they do feel and look different.

    This neighborhood in Pittsburgh looks and feels different than this neighborhood in San Francisco or in Washington, D.C., where one of these zones is in Petworth, which is a gentrifying neighborhood. And that may be not where you think of when you think of a place where homicide goes unsolved.

    And so what we saw was that these geographic areas can't necessarily all be bucketed together. They look very differently city to city.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's important to point out, too, we're not talking about the cities as a whole. These are cities that might have a very good arrest rate overall. We're talking about a few square blocks here and there. Right?

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Of course.

    Omaha, which is where we base the beginning of this story, is a city that's one of the best in the country of solving homicides. They do a very good job and, in fact, have even gotten better in recent years. I think, last year, it was seven in 10 of their homicides resulted in someone being arrested.

    That said, we found a 12-block area where there had been dozens, more than a dozen of homicides, and just a handful that had resulted in an arrest.

    Los Angeles, another good example of this, a city that's done a really good job of getting better at solving major crime. But if you go to certain neighborhoods, these crimes are almost never solved.

    And so what it does is, it speaks to the sense of two cities. Right? You have people who live in Los Angeles who, based on where they live and who they are, their crimes are almost always solved, almost always result in arrest, and other people, based on where they live in Los Angeles, or Omaha, or New York or Boston, where their crimes, if they're the victim, almost never result in arrests.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Central to your reporting was this idea of mistrust that came up again and again from both sides, right?

    Detectives that you talked to in the police departments, also families who lost had loved ones, and the crimes had not yet been solved.

    You guys have a great video supplementing your reporting. And I want to play just a quick little bit of that to hear some of what some people had to say to you.

  • Man:

    Here on homicide, we depend on witnesses and cooperation from the community. And if we don't get that cooperation from the community, it makes the job that much harder.

  • Woman:

    But they really don't care, no. That is somebody's son. He is my son. You need to find out what happened and who did it and why it happened. It doesn't matter where he comes from. Your job is to solve homicides. And that's what you need to be doing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That mistrust, was that something you found over and over again in these places?

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Certainly.

    And many departments say that, when you look at the map, you look at the map of their unsolved homicide, and it doubles as a map of the places where they have the worst relationships with the community.

    Homicides particularly, all crime, is often about if people are willing to tell you what they know. You can't solve a murder unless people tell you who murdered the person. Right?

    But think about it. It's a chicken and egg to some extent. If you show up at my doorstep and want information about the murderer who lives in my apartment building, but you never solve murders, it's a pretty easy calculation for me to make.

    Of course, I don't trust you to give you this information about the murderer who lives here. So, it cuts in both direction. Because police are not solving homicides in these neighborhoods or in these places, its leads to distrust, which then emboldens people who want to continue to commit crime.

    And so it becomes a cycle. And the police believe that. Community members believe that. And it really cuts to the core. We have had so much conversation in the last few years about policing and community relationships, often about viral videos and police shootings.

    But what we try to get at in this product is, what is the state of play before that viral video? Where is this trust starting? What is the baseline? And if you live somewhere where you are a victim of crime or likely to be victim of a crime, and a serious crime — we're talking about murders — and yet unlikely to ever receive justice, that doesn't sound like a relationship that's going to be very trusting.

    And that only gets worse then, if you have an incidence of brutality or police violence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And it's important to point out, in your reporting, you find outliers, right? You find places where there is a very good ratio of murders-to-arrest rate there in places you might not expect them, like Atlanta, you're talking about in one part of it.

    What did you find is different that's going on there?

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Certainly.

    And that's something we're going to continue drilling into over the course of the year. We got many more pieces that are coming. But that's something we're looking at.

    What we're seeing is that there are some cities that are so good at solving homicide, that even in their most violent neighborhoods, they solve homicide, right?

    Because there's some temptation sometimes to look at this data and go, well, of course the police can't solve any murders in the — on the rough side of town. But what we found was that there are cities like Richmond or Durham or Atlanta where, even in the roughest parts of their city, even in the places that are the biggest challenge, the police are somehow finding a way to solve these crimes.

    And so if the police can make arrests and murders in the rough — rough side of town in Atlanta, that raises a real question about why the police are failing to do so in Baltimore or Chicago or New Orleans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Very quickly, your reporting is going to continue on this.

    Where does it go next?

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Of course. We want to start looking at additional questions. How do resources factor in?

    We want to continue to dive into racial disparities. What we found here, one of our major findings was that a white victim is much more likely to have their homicide result in an arrest than a black or Latino victim.

    And so there's a ton more reporting to do. And the team at The Post is going to continue it for the rest of the year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Wesley Lowery, thanks for coming by and sharing your reporting.

  • Wesley Lowery:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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