Does Justice For Murder Victims Depend On Race, Geography?

Murder rates in New York City are at historic lows, but many of the murders there remain unsolved. Host Michel Martin learns more from New York Daily News reporter Rocco Parascandola, former NYPD detective Joe Giacalone, and the Brennan Center's Nicole Austin-Hillery.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, superstar journalist Katie Couric ruffled a few feathers last week by asking some personal questions of two transgender celebrities. But those were also the kinds of questions many people have. And many people don't know whom to ask. So a transgender activist and one of our regular contributors will be with us in a few minutes to talk through some of the questions and concerns about the experience of being transgender. That's later. But first, another issue that's been in the headlines. It is both a policy issue and a deeply personal and emotional one if you're directly affected. The issue is murder and getting justice for victims. Now many cities around the country have been experiencing rates that are the lowest they've been in decades.

New York City is perhaps the poster child for this because murder rates there are lower than they've been since the city started keeping count in the early 1960s. With murder rates as low as they are and the police department that is both one of the largest and most highly regarded in the world, many might expect that no murderer would go unsolved. But according to a recent investigation by the New York Daily News, about 1,500 murders in New York City have gone unsolved over the past decade. And the percentage of murder cases cleared has fallen. And the cases are more likely to remain unsolved if the victim is black or Latino or lives in the so-called outer boroughs, which is to say not Manhattan. Now this has opened up another painful discussion about whether justice is truly colorblind. But others say the issue is more complicated than that. So we've called three people to talk about it. To tell us more we're joined now by Joe Giacalone. He's a retired NYPD detective sergeant who spent more than 20 years on the force. He's now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us, professor.

JOE GIACALONE: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Nicole Austin-Hillery is also with us. She's the director and counsel of the Washington, D.C. office of the Brennan Center for Justice. That's a group that does both research and advocacy work in areas of racial disparity in criminal justice. That's one of her concerns. Thank you so much for joining us also.

NICOLE AUSTIN-HILLERY: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And also with us, Rocco Parascandola. He is the police bureau chief for the New York Daily News, which dug into those numbers. Rocco, thank you so much for joining us, and let's start with you. You say that about 70 percent...

ROCCO PARASCANDOLA: Hello.

MARTIN: ...Of the murders in New York City are generally cleared annually. First of all, tell us what that number means, and tell us what also the investigation found?

PARASCANDOLA: OK, well, the clearance rate - if in any given year 70 percent of the murders have been cleared - if the clearance rate is 70 percent, that includes murders that occurred both that year as well as in previous years. So for instance, if you have 500 murders in a year and 300 of them that occurred that year are cleared, that's 60 percent. However, if 100 murders from previous years, whether it's last year, five years ago, 10 years ago, is cleared also, then you tack that 100 onto the 300. And that gives you 400 or an 80 percent clearance rate.

MARTIN: OK. So it's a complicated issue. The numbers are not easy to understand. So I understand I don't want to get lost in the weeds here. And you did, as we said, a complete investigation of this, which I invite people to read. I do want to get to some of the issues that have sparked a lot of kind of public discussion since.

PARASCANDOLA: Sure.

MARTIN: You found that 86 percent of least year's homicides involving a white victim have been solved compared with 45 percent of murders with a black victim and 56 percent of murders involving a Hispanic victim. And there's also the geography question. Let me - take the racial question first. Do you - is there a reason for this?

PARASCANDOLA: Well, it's a complicated question, and there's probably no one simple answer. The general feeling about murders and why some are more difficult to clear than others involve a number of factors here including a growing no-snitch culture where police will, you know, run into resistance from the victim's family, even the victim's friends, you know, people who know things but would prefer to deal with it themselves, take care of it themselves.

That's always been a dynamic. It's nothing new. There is a feeling, however, that it's gotten worse in recent years. And a lot of times police know who did it. And as a result of different factors, including that, they can't quite make an arrest. The last thing they want is to make an arrest and have the DA tell them, you know, this is going nowhere. We have to drop the charges. Or if it's a shaky case 'cause you don't have that key witness, let's say, it might result in an acquittal. So the feeling is, let's get it as solid as possible. And thus, you can have cases that remain open for quite some time. Now, you know, I don't know if don't snitch is - if it's - in fact, I know it's not, you know, native, so to speak, just to black or Hispanic communities. It certainly happens in white communities as well. But that is one reason that police have trouble solving some cases.

MARTIN: Let's hear from Joe Giacalone on this. And as we mentioned, that you spent 20 years on the force and worked as a homicide detective. And now you're a professor, and you look into these issues from an analytical perspective. What's your perspective on this? And I did want to mention that there's also the question of geography. That the news tallied 77 percent open-murder investigations in Brooklyn, 39 in the Bronx, 26 in Queens, 15 in Manhattan and two on Staten Island. Now that raised questions not just because people of color tend to live in the so-called outer boroughs, but the feeling was that crimes in Manhattan, which is a more affluent area, more white, gets more attention and more resources. So, Joe Giacalone, I want to ask you, is that true?

GIACALONE: No. What happens is this. You know, I know Rocco was talking about this, and it is a complicated question. However, it depends on the victim, what they were involved with - if you're a gang member, if you were into drugs, if you're - and, you know, just think back in the history of the old mob cases. It depends on your background and what you're involved in, if this case is going to get solved or not. If it's a domestic violence case, I mean, there's a 99 percent chance that case is going to be solved. So it depends on what the victim was into. It plays heavily into this. You know, I mean, look back at all those old mob histories. I mean, they're half - probably, most of them are still unsolved.

MARTIN: So you're saying that the - I don't know what word to use - lifestyle of the victim is the relevant factor here. That people - you're saying that these unsolved cases, in your view, are mainly because people had connections or there were aspects of the way they lived that led to their being victimized. Is that your view?

GIACALONE: Yeah, sure. What happens is, like, you know, the no snitching. If you're running in circles with bad guys, the chances of them cooperating with the police is zero. So you have - if you're an investigator on this, you're really behind the eight ball because without any evidence or surveillance video, you're not going to get any help from the public.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about that, though. I mean, couldn't that have something to do with where you happen to live? I mean, do you have to be a bad guy because you're poor and you live in a neighborhood where there is the threat of retribution? I mean, is that your lifestyle or is that your poverty?

GIACALONE: Well, no. I mean, this - we know poverty does lead to crime. We know that. There's a lot of issues why, you know, why people resort to crime. But listen, I worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, and I met a lot of great people. And a lot people are just looking to get by. It's a very small portion of our population that is involved in these kinds of issues.

MARTIN: Nicole, how do you respond to this? One of this - as I mentioned, that one of your areas of focus at the Brennan Center is racial disparities in criminal justice. How do you respond to these numbers?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: First of all, Michel, I want to say that I think we all know this anecdotally and based on numbers, police departments focus on the cases that are the highest-profile cases. That's number one. And many of the cases that were profiled in the news report that we're focusing on, dealt with ordinary people. Ordinary people just don't get, necessarily, the same kind of attention that high-profile cases do. Secondly, I think what I'm hearing here is a blame-the-victim kind of a problem here. And I don't think that's what the issue is. What the issue is here is what is happening within these police forces. Where are they allocating resources?

And what kinds of programs are actually in place to help them to work more closely with the community? Things like community policing need to happen. Some of those things are happening in jurisdictions like New York, Philadelphia and other places, but we need to have more of that. With community policing, the community is working more closely with the police department. They're developing better relationships so that they can actually service tools from one another.

MARTIN: Well, what - but, Nicole, what about - can you address that his point, though. I mean, if his point is that if people are involved in certain activities that are more likely to subject them to criminal retribution or to violence - let's just say violence, OK - then that's a harder nut to crack than an accident, a street robbery where the parties are unknown to each other or something of that sort. That lifestyle does play a role. Do you reject that?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: You know, Michel, I am a researcher and a policy advocate. I don't know and I can't say for certain whether those things make it more so that those individuals are going to be involved in cases that are harder to solve. What I will say is this, that with the right amount of resource allocation and the right amount of focus, I think that we can give an equal kind of effort to resolving all of these crimes. And that it really shouldn't matter what type of crime it is.

MARTIN: But you're saying that equal - but maybe crimes require - certain crimes and certain places require more than just equal resources. That if you distribute the resources equally, that you're not going to get the same result, I mean, is that - is what you're saying. Do you see my point? Why doesn't it matter if a person is involved in criminal activities with other people who are similarly involved in criminal activities and their willingness to come forward? Why wouldn't that make a difference?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: I mean, certainly, those variables, I'm sure, impact a case and impact what kind of investigation is required. But what I'm saying, Michel, is that you have to look at each of these cases and determine what kind of resources are needed. We know at the Brennan Center that resource allocation is a problem in terms of how - what cases get attention and what cases are getting the resources that they need to be resolved. We also know that there is a problem with respect to what kind of incentives are being put in place for law enforcement to solve cases. For instant, there are federal grants that law enforcement agencies are given - one namely the Byrne JAG Grant Program - and there are performance measures that are related to these grant programs. And these law enforcement agencies are being asked certain questions.

And if they're not being asked the right questions - for instance, how many homicide cases are you solving, what neighborhoods are you focusing on, what kind of resources are you giving to these communities - then we know there's no incentive for them, necessarily, to put the resources in place that are required.

MARTIN: Well, Rocco, maybe you can answer the resource question. And if you're just joining us, we are talking about a new report by the New York Daily News. New York City's experiencing historic low homicide rates. But a new investigation by the New York Daily News reveals that there are racial disparities in the number of these cases that are cleared. And also that the clearance rate seems to be going down. We wanted to talk about why that might be. So we're talking with Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice. That's a research and advocacy group. Retired New York police detective Joe Giacalone who's now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. And Rocco Parascandola of the New York Daily News who dug into these numbers. What about the resource questions? I mean, do the detectives in each of these places where there are a higher caseload of unsolved murders, do they have the same resources as the people in Manhattan?

PARASCANDOLA: Well, that was the - you know, our - the idea we put forward in deciding to do this story was to ask why, if murders are sharply down, why has the clearance rate not gone sharply up? And we got a lot of answers, a lot of different theories. One thing that sticks out, though, is that, you know, this is a much smaller force by 5,000, maybe 6,000 police officers than it was in 2001. The police department now has a counterterrorism bureau with hundreds of detectives assigned there - detectives that previously would have been in detective squads, let's say.

And then on any given number of days in the course of a year, there are officers of all ranks, including detectives, who are pulled off regular duty for counterterrorism measures, whether it's dignitary protection when the U.N. General Assembly meets in September, or whether it's a two-a-day - two or three-day response, let's say, here to a bombing incident overseas. And that all factors in. And I don't think anyone can say or would suggest that departments should not focus on counterterrorism efforts. At the same time, however, there are things now that detectives investigate that they were not investigating 10 or 12 years ago. As the serious and violent crime rate has plunged, detectives are now being asked to investigate lesser crimes. And all being asked...

MARTIN: Like identity theft or phone theft or things of that sort? Phone theft and things like that?

PARASCANDOLA: Identity theft 10 or 12 years ago, while it was a problem, it's not nearly the problem that it is now. Electronic gadgets, iPhones, laptops...

MARTIN: I hear what you're saying.

PARASCANDOLA: ...iPads - they're stolen.

MARTIN: Yeah.

PARASCANDOLA: And so what you have is you have, ironically, I guess, you have detectives with greater caseloads now, perhaps, than 10, 15, 20 years ago. And while those cases will get shunted aside if there's a murderer or a serious shooting or a rape or an armed robbery, the fact of the matter is, that's still part of their caseload. And they still have to dedicate time to those cases at some point. You know, I guess it's - the journalism equivalent would be, you're working on a couple of big stories, but you're also doing a couple of news briefs. Those still take time to do. And those small cases still get attention along the way. And I think that - and that's a conscious decision by the police department to do that. Now...

MARTIN: Let me go to...

PARASCANDOLA: ...Some would argue that...

MARTIN: We have about three minutes left. So I'm - Rocco, I'm not going to put you in the position of being an advocate here because we have two people who I feel are in the position of being able to offer recommendations about what should happen now. So, Sergeant Giacalone, professor, I'm going to ask you. What should happened now? I mean, one of the points that Rocco makes and his fellow journalists make in the piece is that perception becomes reality. If people feel that the police don't take these crimes as seriously in their neighborhoods, they're even less likely to cooperate. What do you think should happen now based on this reporting if anything?

GIACALONE: Well, we have to get more people into the detective squads. We have to bring back, you know, better training and look at some of the things that help them 'cause we - listen, we understand that the more people that respond initially to a homicide, the more likelihood that you are going to solve it. So we need to fund those squads back up to the normal levels what they used to be. But it takes a long time to become a detective. I mean, they take people after five years. And then it's 18 months after that. So it takes several years to get people up to speed.

MARTIN: I can't - I'm still not sure whether I feel from you - is this a problem or not? I mean, do you feel that these numbers on their face are a problem, Professor Giacalone?

GIACALONE: Well, listen...

MARTIN: Do you? Are they?

GIACALONE: ...Any loss of life is a problem as far as I'm concerned. But one thing I can say about myself and anybody in the New York City Police Department, we treated every homicide the same way - doesn't matter a race, color, creed, religion. It didn't matter. The likelihood - we put the same effort into solving those cases as we would anybody else.

MARTIN: Nicole, what do you think should happen as a result of this investigation?

AUSTIN-HILLERY: Two things, Michel. And I go back to this issue of resource allocation. The Brennan Center just published a report called "Reforming Funding to Reduce Mass Incarceration," and that links dollars to outcomes. We have to start putting dollars in the areas where we want certain outcomes. If we want to improve the rate by which we are solving homicides, moneys have to be allocated to those areas. We also have to improve the relationship between the police and their communities through programs like community policing.

And finally, we've got to look to our legislatures. They have a role to play. There should be more dollars appropriated to minority communities for things like helping to solve the homicide rate. And we have to make it much more feasible for these law enforcement agencies to be focused on these issue areas so that they don't feel like all of their attention has to go into other areas like counterterrorism. But...

MARTIN: Let me just get one final thought from Rocco because your team of reporters looked...

PARASCANDOLA: Sure.

MARTIN: ...Into this. Did - were you surprised when you looked at the numbers?

PARASCANDOLA: I actually wasn't if only because I've actually done a number of clearance rate stories through the years. I've - probably six or seven of them. And the reasons I hear now are the same reasons - reasons I heard then are the same reasons I hear now, and the same things I spoke about earlier. So no, I wasn't surprised. What was surprising, I guess, was we got for the first time the caseload - the caseload in each precinct. And it's a staggering number. And if you look at those numbers, it begins - you can begin to see why the clearance rate is not going up.

MARTIN: OK. We have to leave it - we have to...

PARASCANDOLA: I do think the...

MARTIN: I'm sorry, we have to leave it there for now. I apologize. It's clearly a very rich and complicated topic. And, you know, hopefully, we'll have opportunities to dig into it again. Rocco Parascandola is the police bureau chief for the New York Daily News, with us via phone from his office in New York. Joe Giacalone is a retired NYPD detective sergeant. He spent more than 20 years on the force. He's an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was in our bureau in New York. Nicole Austin-Hillery is the director and counsel of the Washington, D.C. office of the Brennan Center for Justice, here in our studios in Washington, D.C. I thank you all so much for helping us dig into this important story.

PARASCANDOLA: Thank you.

GIACALONE: Thank you.

AUSTIN-HILLERY: You're welcome, Michel.

GIACALONE: Thanks, Michel.

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