Reasons Are Elusive as D.C. Lifts Homicide Closure Rate

Police Chief Cathy Lanier with Mayor Adrian Fenty. She attributed improvements in homicide cases to the department's work ethic and connection with the community.
Police Chief Cathy Lanier with Mayor Adrian Fenty. She attributed improvements in homicide cases to the department's work ethic and connection with the community. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008

D.C. police closed homicide cases last year at their best rate in a decade, but law enforcement officials and investigators don't agree on what produced the increase, making it unclear whether the success can be sustained.

The 71 percent closure rate, which Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called a "hallmark" figure, was one of the few bright spots in the police department's efforts against violent crime in 2007, a year in which homicides and nonfatal gun crimes increased by 7 percent and armed robberies rose by 24 percent. Success in such investigations remains critical, as the city has begun the new year violently, with one teen killed and several wounded in drive-by attacks.

Detectives, law enforcement officials and prosecutors offer a complex and sometimes contradictory web of reasons for the increase in the homicide closure rate: administrative changes, falling caseloads, hard work, luck. And all cite continued challenges, including reluctant witnesses and the city's lack of a forensics lab.

"Homicide closures are a difficult thing, and it's been tougher and tougher in the last 20 years," Lanier said. "It's really a lot of things to create a perfect storm. I just hope it stays for a while."

The homicide closure rate, considered a significant measure of the effectiveness of law enforcement, takes into account arrests as well as investigations ended for other reasons, such as the death of a suspect or a reclassification of the crime. Arrests made in cases from previous years are included. Police compare the number of closures with the number of new cases to calculate the rate.

In their equation, police included 27 cases from previous years closed with arrest and 11 cases closed administratively without arrests or prosecutions. Fifty percent the 181 homicide cases from last year were closed, according to police statistics.

Lanier said that most departments use the same calculation and that the national average is 52 percent.

Less than a decade ago, D.C. police investigators faced harsh criticism and shake-ups after they failed to close even half of their cases. Many case files were incomplete or had not been reviewed by supervisors, and in 2000, then-Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey called the investigative procedures "dysfunctional."

By 2005 and 2006, investigators were closing more than 60 percent of their cases.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who leads the committee overseeing the police, said, "It's wonderful they've gotten to 70 percent after all these years."

He acknowledged the obstacle of waiting months for the FBI to complete forensic analysis because the District lacks its own lab. But he said that witness cooperation could be improved with a larger police presence in neighborhoods and that investigators could refine their interviewing techniques to help locate more witnesses.

"Closure rates for homicides should be closer to 90 percent," Mendelson said. "People shouldn't get away with murder."

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