Portland homicide clearance rates fall as murders rise

A piece of police tape remains attached to the gutter at the Rose City Terrace apartments, where Benjamin Jeffrey Smith lives. Smith is suspected of shooting and killing social justice protester Brandy “June” Knightly, 60, and wounding four others in a February 19 clash.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff/OPB

As homicide rates in Portland have soared in recent years, the Portland Police Bureau has struggled to keep up.

The latest figures, released Thursday, show Portland officers solving fewer cases as the number of murders soared. Clearing a homicide usually means arresting someone for the crime. Sometimes a homicide may be classified as ‘exceptionally’, which means detectives believe they have enough evidence but are unable to make an arrest, for example if the suspect is dead or witnesses are unwilling not cooperate with the prosecution.

In 2021, amid a record number of murders, detectives cleared just 48% of the city’s homicides, leaving 47 of the city’s 90 homicides unsolved, according to the latest PPB data. The figure continues a dramatic decline in the bureau’s homicide clearance rates. In 2017, detectives exceeded the national average by 20 percentage points, solving about 81% of the city’s 27 murders. In 2020, the agency was only a few points above the national average, clearing about 59% of the 54 homicides that year.

National data is not yet available for 2021, so it’s unclear how Portland compares.

The Portland Police Bureau does not detail how each homicide was solved in its annual report, but the police bureau spokesman, Sgt. Kevin Allen said the agency does not rule out homicides exceptionally if a suspect is identified but not arrested, only if the homicide is deemed self-defense or if a grand jury declines to indict a suspect.

The police declined a request for an interview.

Due to the dramatic increase in homicides in 2021, the bureau has assigned six additional detectives to its Homicide Unit.

Portland police are investigating a shooting on October 26, 2021 in North Portland.

Portland police are investigating a shooting on October 26, 2021 in North Portland.

Jonathan Levinson/OPB

Despite outperforming their colleagues for years, the bureau’s declining performance of late brings the agency one step closer to a national decline that dates back to the 1980s, according to the nonprofit Murder Accountability Project, which uses the FBI data and public records requests to track homicides in the United States. .

“The rate at which we solve homicides by making an arrest has been steadily declining for 50 years,” director Thomas Hargrove said. “In 2020, the most recent year for which we have complete data, the national average for the elimination of homicides according to the FBI was 54%, making it almost a 50-50 draw if a particular murder will be expunged.”

Until recently, Portland homicide detectives were operating at levels not seen nationally since the 1960s, solving more than 80% of the city’s homicides. In 2018, when Portland cleared 81% of homicides in the city, Oakland, Calif., officers cleared only 40%, New Orleans 41.5% and Seattle 68%, according to FBI data.

Experts disagree on why clearance rates have dropped. Hargrove said that as Americans moved from rural communities to major urban centers, crime followed. And because crimes in cities can more often involve people who didn’t know each other before, they’re less likely to be solved.

Policing has also evolved dramatically since the 1960s, when arrest and evidence-gathering standards were much looser. Rigid standards, which arose in large part because of civil rights violations, may have impacted resolution rates over time.

In 2020, for reasons researchers still don’t fully understand, homicides across the country increased, causing solve rates to plummet.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler recently announced a $2.4 million initiative to address gun violence in the city, the latest in a series of efforts to address shootings since they began. to increase sharply in 2019.

Evidence suggests that local efforts to address gun violence often have limited success. And as homicides rise and more than half go unsolved, the city could explode. According to Hargrove, the data suggests that when solve rates go down, homicide rates go up.

“You’ve got an increasing number of killers walking the streets, you’ve got an increasing number of people who care about murdered people for whom there’s no justice. And so sometimes there’s a tendency to get justice itself,” Hargrove said. “Murder begets murder, especially unsolved murder.”

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