ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
American police aren't solving as many homicides as they used to. Fifty years ago, police departments reported clearing 90 percent of murder cases. That's the percentage of cases in which someone was arrested or a suspect was otherwise identified. Well, now that clearance rate is 64 percent. Today on Morning Edition we heard some reasons why, including a focus on preventing crime instead of clearing cases. NPR's Martin Kaste tells us next about efforts to solve more murder cases from the view of some homicide detectives.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's a late, wintry afternoon on the western edge of Detroit. Three homicide investigators head up the icy walk to a brick house. Up ahead, cops in ballistic vests are already at the door.
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KASTE: They're here serving a search warrant. They're looking for a gun used to kill a medical marijuana deliveryman in January.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Police.
KASTE: But let's hold off on this scene for a bit because, for homicide cops, this is the good part. They're in the field. They're closing in on key evidence. But the fact is, before that happens, there's usually a lot of this...
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KASTE: Paperwork downtown. Detroit's police headquarters is housed in a converted casino, but it's a nice remodel. Homicide has the kind of open-office plan that you'd see at an insurance company. And the investigators lean over the cubicles, discussing their cases.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Hey, look. Didn't we take a statement the other day from the mom who said, get that gun out of the house?
KASTE: Looming over their work is a whiteboard. It's the same whiteboard you've seen on the cop shows. And just like on the shows, they color-code the status of their cases.
SERGEANT MIKE RUSSELL: Red means they're closed and green means they're open. This is red and green because it's at the prosecutor's office now being signed.
KASTE: Sgt. Mike Russell is the squad leader here, and he's pretty happy with how the board looks at the moment.
RUSSELL: It's - I mean, that's great now. I mean, that's phenomenal. If you could sustain that for 365 days, that's a whole different story.
KASTE: These cops are in a race with one of the worst homicide rates in the country, and it's hard not to fall behind. In 2012, Detroit barely cleared 1 murder in 10. In the city's defense, it was on the verge of bankruptcy then. They're pushing the rate up now. One way to do that is to mine cold cases. Russell has one like that on his desk right now.
RUSSELL: It's a case from 1979. And a body was discovered in '92 in the dump in Monroe County in cement, and she was just ID'd two weeks ago.
KASTE: This isn't cheating. Under certain federal crime stat rules, you get the credit for the clearance in the year you solve the murder, not the year the crime was committed. And so a lot of departments have boosted their clearance rates this way. But the downside is, once the department has solved the easier cold cases, they often see their rate sag again. So another thing they try - which Detroit is doing - is to make their homicide detectives experts about certain neighborhoods. Russell's squad, for instance, specializes in northwestern Detroit.
RUSSELL: Now if we get a case, pretty much no matter where it happens in our area, we've had something in that area already. We have a particular family that's names' come up in several of our cases. And, you know, we know to look at them now.
KASTE: And that's where his squad is now, the precinct house in their area.
JAMES KRASZEWSKI: Just got a couple more guys coming.
KASTE: They're in the break room, where investigator James Kraszewski is briefing the uniformed cops who are going to help them look for that murder weapon.
KRASZEWSKI: So what we're looking for is a - supposed to be a long shotgun. And according to the suspects, it very well might have human remains on the actual gun, so be mindful. They're might be some bio...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Don't touch.
KRASZEWSKI: Don't touch.
KASTE: And here you can see why homicide eats up so many man hours. There are at least 10 officers heading out on this search, and it's not even considered a dangerous one because the suspects are already in custody. The detectives call this a nice-guy entry because, well, they plan to knock.
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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Police. How you doing, ma'am?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #4: How you doing, ma'am?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Do you have any dogs in here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Who?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #3: Dogs. Ruff ruff.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No.
KASTE: It turns out the residents are Central American. The detectives corral them in the dining room while the tactical officers search the house.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: Come over here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Why?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #5: Ma'am, just - ma'am, let me have you take a seat right here.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #6: Sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah?
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #6: Take a seat over here.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #6: You're OK. You're OK. Come sit over here, ma'am.
KASTE: The family sits surrounded by the officers. They question the father with the help of an English-speaking older daughter. A petrified younger girl keeps whimpering to her mother in Spanish that she's about to throw up. And soon it becomes clear that this family has just moved in.
BRIAN BOWSER: That's fortunate for you, unfortunate for us. So just give us a few minutes and we'll be out of your hair, OK?
KASTE: Whoever had the gun stashed here has already moved out. As the investigators leave, they call the father out onto the porch to reveal what this was all really about.
BOWSER: A weapon was hidden in the house. We don't know what they did with it. They could have shoved it in the attic, put it in the eaves. When the snow melts - as soon as the snow melts, go in the back yard and make sure you look.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: OK.
KASTE: If the gun's here, they tell them, you want to find it before your kids do. Getting back in the car, Kraszewski and his partner Brian Bowser shrug off all the lost time.
BOWSER: It's one of those Ts you've got to cross and the I you've got to dot.
KASTE: That's actually Bowser's favorite expression when talking about all the steps that go into solving even an easy homicide. They actually didn't need this gun to make the case. But months from now, if a defense lawyer asked them in court if they searched this house, they've got to be able to say yes. It's just another T to cross before they can update the status of this case on that whiteboard.
BOWSER: And there's nothing like - I know it's simple - there's nothing like changing the color of that number.
BOWSER: You put so much work into it.
KASTE: So far, they're close to caught up with this year's murders. But the more violent summer months are still ahead of them, and they figure each of them is likely to catch a dozen cases before the year is over. That's three times the load most homicide detectives carry. On the drive back downtown, Kraszewski says it all makes him superstitious.
KRASZEWSKI: Like I will not change my own color. I feel if I change my own color, my next one I will not be able to change. So I refuse to change my own color.
KASTE: So who changes your color?
KRASZEWSKI: Whoever wants to do it for me.
KASTE: Detroit police say they brought their clearance rate up to 63 percent in 2014, in part by solving older cases. Sixty-three percent is about the national average, so that's good. But seen from the perspective of the one-third of murders that remain unsolved, there's still a long way to go. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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