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Statement on the Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Closure Rate

Thursday, January 25, 2001

Statement on the Metropolitan Police Department Homicide Closure Rate

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Committee on the Judiciary
Kathleen Patterson, Chair
Council of the District of Columbia

Testimony of Chief Charles H. Ramsey
Metropolitan Police Department

Madame chair, members of the Committee and guests—thank you for the opportunity to update you on homicide trends in the District of Columbia and to outline for you the Metropolitan Police Department's efforts to reduce homicides and improve our clearance rate.

For the Committee's information - In addition to my testimony this morning, MPDC officials will be attending the second part of the public roundtable this evening. Just as we did at the recent town hall meeting on homicides sponsored by WOL radio, our Department will have command representatives from each police district and each Regional Operations Command to listen to the public's testimony. These officials will be available to take more detailed information about specific cases from witnesses or other members of the public who attend. And, just as we are doing with the witnesses from the previous town hall meeting, we will follow up on each and every case presented to us this evening. So we appreciate the opportunity to once again hear directly from the community on this important matter.

I also appreciate the opportunity to be the lead-off witness this morning, because I think it is important that we put the whole matter of homicide investigations and closures into a broader context. Specifically, I want to call to the Committee's attention two key trends that really define the homicide picture in the District.

The first is the dramatic reduction in the number of killings in our city over the last decade. The second is the changing nature of the homicides that are occurring and the impact this is having on investigations and closures.

The District of Columbia recorded 237 homicides last year, our lowest total since 1987. The year 2000 was the fourth consecutive year in which homicides declined in our city. And since 1991, when there were 482 murders in the District, the number of killings has been cut by more than 50 percent.

There are probably any number of reasons for this dramatic reduction: a better economy, lower unemployment, fewer people in the "crime-prone" age groups, changes in drug abuse and trafficking patterns and, certainly, more effective policing that deals with neighborhood crime and disorder problems before they turn violent or lethal. Regardless of the exact combination of factors, the bottom line is that we have made significant progress in bringing down the District's homicide rate from the intolerably high levels of a decade ago.

Washington, DC, is still far too violent for a city of this size and stature. That is why a top priority of our department remains the prevention of crime—including the prevention of homicides. Every time our Department has to open a new homicide investigation, we have, in effect, lost the most important battle—the battle to save another human being's life.

Compared with a decade ago, we are saving nearly 250 lives a year in the District. But I will not rest until the number of lives saved is much, much higher.

Of course, to the surviving family members and friends of homicide victims, all the statistics in the world are meaningless when a loved one has been killed. That is why, in addition to focusing on homicide prevention, our Department is instituting a number of reforms to improve criminal investigations and close more cases. We owe the survivors of homicide nothing less than the best, most thorough and professional effort when it comes to bringing some closure to their personal ordeal. Unfortunately, our Department, going back many years, has not always met that standard.

Before outlining some of steps we are taking, I do want to mention a second major trend—the changing nature of homicide—because it directly impacts law enforcement's ability to solve these cases.

When I was a young police officer 33 years ago, the vast majority of homicides involved victims and offenders who knew one another—domestic violence, arguments between acquaintances and the like. Homicide investigations back then were usually less a case of "who done it?" as much as "where can I find the offender?"

Homicide closure rates back then reflected these characteristics. In a March 2000 article, USA Today explored the decline in homicide clearance rates throughout the country. The paper reported that nationally, 86 percent of homicides were solved in 1968, according to the FBI. By 1994, however, that figure had dropped to 64 percent, and has remained under 70 percent ever since.

Here in the District, as in most other major cities, the homicide clearance rate has traditionally lagged behind the national average. During 1993, in fact, our closure rate dropped to as low as 48 percent in the District. In 1999, our clearance rate was 61 percent; the preliminary figure for the year 2000 is 57 percent. By comparison, the clearance rate in similarly sized cities was also 61 percent in 1999.

So why have homicide clearance rates dropped in the District and elsewhere, even as the number of killings has fallen—and fallen dramatically? One important reason is that a higher percentage of murders today are being committed by strangers, rather than spouses or friends. And even when victims and offenders know each, their relationship is often based on drug abuse or other illegal activity.

More murders today are simply cold-blooded executions, often over drugs, carried out at times and locations in which few or no witnesses are around—or the witnesses themselves are sometimes engaged in criminal activity. Killers themselves have become more sophisticated and skillful at concealing their crimes and destroying evidence.

Even in cases where we have witnesses, these individuals are often too fearful to cooperate, especially in gang- and drug-related killings.

These and other factors have combined to make the solving of homicides today that much more difficult than it was years ago. The television image of a detective finding a single strand of hair and apprehending the killer an hour later is simply not the way things work. To meet the high standards for prosecution established by the United States Attorney's Office, we need physical evidence, plus credible witness statements and other information.

I offer this analysis not as an excuse for why the District's homicide clearance rate is not higher. Rather I present this data so that the Committee and the community can better appreciate the challenges we face in solving homicides and better understand the rationale behind the steps we are taking to improve our performance in this area. Just as I am not satisfied with 237 homicides a year in the District of Columbia, I am certainly not satisfied with a 57 percent clearance rate. We can do better, and—with the help of the Council and the community—we will do better.

Over the past two-and-one half years, our Department has instituted a number of reforms, focused not only on reducing homicides and other violent crimes, but also on improving our ability to investigate and solve those crimes that do occur. I would like to outline for you some of the key changes already in place or in the process of being implemented.

Assignment of detectives to police districts

One major change I made nearly two years ago was to move our homicide detectives out of their centralized unit at Headquarters and station them in the seven police districts where the homicides and other violent crimes occur. This move has received an inordinate amount of attention, and I want to address the issue head-on today.

Detectives were moved out of Police Headquarters and into the districts for a number of reasons: to get them closer to the communities they serve, to increase their day-to-day contact with PSA officers and other field personnel, to help them develop contacts in the community, and to increase the flow of information among detectives about all violent crime occurring in a police district.

Unlike previous efforts to decentralized our detectives, this time we provided them with the necessary support to do their jobs: adequate office space, new computers, filing systems, and, especially, new training (which I will detail a bit later). We also provided our detectives with new interview and interrogation rooms, videotaping systems that work, and enhanced security - all necessities that were sorely missing from the old Homicide Unit on the third floor of Police Headquarters.

I believe ... as do the police chiefs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and many other major cities ... that assigning detectives to specific communities, and holding them accountable for investigations in those communities, is the best approach to investigating homicides and other violent crimes.

At the same time, I believe there does need to be some centralized oversight and management of homicide investigations. That is why we are in the process of creating a centralized homicide case management review function. Its mission will be to ensure that all investigations follow established protocols, that the necessary paperwork is completed and filed, that closed cases are ready for prosecution, and that sufficient progress is being made on open cases. This will be an important step forward in ensuring consistency and accountability in our homicide investigations.

I also believe that we do need to develop greater expertise within our district violent crime units. In the near future, we will not only be assigning more detectives to violent crimes; we will also be organizing those detectives into specialty areas. In each district, one group of detectives will focus on homicides and AWIK's (assault with intent to kill). One group will focus on sexual assaults. One group will focus on robberies. These detectives will receive extensive training in their area of specialty, and they will serve as the lead investigators when these crimes occur.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe this whole centralization-versus-decentralization issue has been both over-simplified and blown way out of proportion to its actual impact on criminal investigations. Improving our homicide clearance rate is not a matter of where a detective has his or her desk. If it were as simple as putting our violent crime detectives in one building or another, I would not hesitate for a minute to put them there. But the reality is just not that simple.

Many of the problem cases highlighted in the recent Washington Post series occurred when our Homicide Unit was, in fact, centralized. Others occurred when homicide was decentralized, or at least partially so. In 1996, when the Department as the National Drug Intelligence Center to come in and review homicide procedures, the Homicide Unit was centralized. Yet, NDIC discovered more than 600 homicide case jackets were missing at the time. The review of closed cases that I ordered last summer revealed 378 missing case jackets—with many of these being the same ones that were identified in 1996. No one ever took any action. In addition, a review of our closure rates over the years shows no direct correlation between where our detectives were stationed and our ability to solve homicides.

So when you look at clearance rates and case management over the last decade, what you find is a decade of mediocrity. I am afraid this notion that there was somehow a "golden age" for homicide investigations in the district, when detectives were centralized during much of the 1990s, is more myth than reality.

We need to move beyond this simplified debate of centralization-versus-decentralization, and get to the true crux of the matter: the quality of our investigative process, the quality of our investigators and supervisors, the quality of the tools and training available to them, and the quality of our case management.

These issues, far more than a continuing debate over centralization-versus-decentralization, are what is critical to improving our performance in homicide and other types of criminal investigations. And it is these issues that our Department will focus on as we continue to move forward. Our violent crime detectives will remain in the districts. What will change are the procedures they will follow and the tools and training available to them.

In many respects, improving our homicide clearance rate is about improving our fundamentals—basic blocking and tackling, if you will. Toward that end, our Department has recently implemented (or is in the process of implementing) a number of other reforms that I want to outline very briefly.

Standard operating procedure

We are putting the finishing touches on a new standard operating procedure for homicide investigations. This document, which has been shared with the Chair, covers all aspects of homicide investigations. It establishes clear-cut standards for everyone—from the initial call-taker in the Communications Center, to the patrol officer and supervisor on the scene, to the detectives, mobile crime technicians and others involved in the investigation. It sets standards for such key activities as preserving the crime scene, interviewing witnesses and identifying suspects at the scene, canvassing the area for physical evidence, and many other aspects of on-scene management. It also spells out a strict review process for all homicide investigations, with the twin goals of making an arrest as quickly as possible and keeping family members informed of progress in the case. In addition, the new SOP mandates a thorough review of every closed case to ensure proper procedures were followed, as well as random audits of selected open cases every month to monitor progress.

In short, this document prescribes strict policies and standards that define the supervision and management of homicide investigations—something that has been sorely lacking in the past. The new procedures eliminate discretion when it comes to the fundamentals, and strengthen accountability for detectives and supervisors in the conduct and management of their investigations.

The development of this SOP was one of the significant outcomes of two "best-practices" forums that the MPDC convened last summer. These sessions brought together homicide experts from across the country to examine the state-of-the-art in homicide investigations and to help the MPDC incorporate the best ideas of the profession into our own procedures. The SOP is a long-overdue step toward ensuring greater quality, consistency and accountability in future homicide investigations.

Selection and retention of detectives

Another important area we explored during the best-practices forums was the selection of detectives. Unlike almost every other major city department in the country, the MPDC for years has not used a competitive process for promoting police officers to detectives. That is about to change.

In the very near future, we will unveil a testing procedure for detectives, similar in design to the procedures already in place for promotions to sergeant, lieutenant and captain. Just as with those promotional processes, there will be minimum experience and performance levels that police officers will need to meet prior to being considered for a detective's position. And new detectives will complete a probationary period to demonstrate their abilities in a real-life setting.

Don't get me wrong: we have some excellent detectives on our Department who were promoted under the current system. But we also have some detectives who do not measure up and need to be removed. In order to do that, we need a meaningful performance management system specifically for detectives. We need a system in place that not only selects the most highly qualified candidates, but can remove those detectives who are unqualified. For years, our Department's problem has been ensuring a consistently high level of quality and competency among our investigators. New selection, evaluation and retention processes for detectives should go a long way toward addressing this problem. I am calling on the Fraternal Order of Police to support me on these new and common-sense standards.

Training

Another area we continue to emphasize is training. Three years ago, experienced detectives in the MPDC—actually, experienced officers across the board—received absolutely no regular, in-service training. We have already addressed that shortcoming. Now, all of our officers (including detectives) must complete 40 hours of in-service training every year. We have also provided our detectives—both violent and property crime investigators—with a number of specialized courses in areas such as interviews and interrogations, sex offense investigations, child victimization and the like. During calendar years 1999 and 2000 alone, we offered 46 specialized training courses, attended by 1,978 members—both detectives and officers. Combined with regular in-service training and daily roll-call training, our detectives now have more training opportunities than they have had for many years.

But these are only the first steps when it comes to training. Our Department is currently in the process of creating an entirely new criminal investigators academy for detectives. We are developing this academy in conjunction with various other federal, state and local agencies including London's New Scotland Yard, known around the globe as the premier agency when it comes to criminal investigations. This extensive new curriculum will offer training in both the fundamentals of criminal investigations, as well as our new standard operating procedure and new computer resources. This is a major step forward in making sure that our detectives can hone their existing skills, while learning new ones.

Technology

Another major effort has involved upgrading our computer technology for detectives. This week, we cut over to the latest version of WACIIS—the Washington Area Criminal Intelligence Information System. This system, which was first installed in 1992, is used by both detectives and patrol officers to capture, store, analyze and share information on criminal investigations. unfortunately, at that time, detectives were provided with little or no training or support on the system, and it has been under-utilized in the past.

The newest version represents a major upgrade to the original system. For example, using the new system, detectives can now store and retrieve photographs of crime scenes and they can access offenders' mugshots directly from computers in their district stations. In the past, they had to come to Police Headquarters for this information. Detectives can also prepare and post reports online through WACIIS, and immediately print copies in their stations. Information about arrests will be immediately available to all districts through the new system. And by the middle of this year, we plan to allow detectives to electronically transmit arrest reports to the United States Attorney's Office—a significant step toward providing better and more complete information for the prosecution of offenders. The new system also contains a strong case management component for supervisors.

WACIIS has always been an important investigative tool. With this upgrade, we have made it even more robust and user-friendly. Training on the new system has been under way since November and will be completed shortly. To demonstrate our commitment to this technology, I have ordered that all existing detectives must complete WACIIS training to remain in their positions.

Review of old homicide cases

Finally, our Department has undertaken a major effort to review old homicide cases—both closed and open cases—to ensure that proper procedures were followed and complete information is available in case files. I ordered this unprecedented review for a simple reason: I knew we had problems with our homicide investigations. But rather than rely on anecdotes and personal opinions about the nature and extent of the problem, I wanted to be informed by a thorough and independent review.

In August of last year, I directed our Office of Quality Assurance to begin the process of reviewing and analyzing all homicide cases between 1990 and 2000. Under the direction of the Institute for Law and Justice, we assembled a team of highly experienced, former homicide investigators from the MPDC and other agencies to conduct this review.

They began on September 11, 2000, looking at some 2,227 closed cases from 1990 through 1999. To date, 1,825 cases have been reviewed. Of these, the team determined that 1,539 were properly closed by arrest, and another 252 were properly closed by exceptional clearance. Initially, 19 cases had to be re-opened because there was insufficient information in the case files to document the closure. Since then, 16 of these cases have been determined to have been properly closed. Three cases remain open for investigation.

During the course of their work, the review team also discovered that 378 master case jackets were missing from the Homicide File Room maintained at Police Headquarters. As I mentioned earlier, many of these cases were from the early and mid-1990s. I am pleased to report that we have now located all of the missing jackets. We have also instituted a new protocol for the Homicide Case File Room so that complete records will be maintained in the future, and officers, detectives and prosecutors will have easier access to the informaton they need.

In addition to helping us in the development of policies and protocols, this review project has produced other important results. Information about cases that pre-dated WACIIS is being entered into the system, and we are beginning to analyze and map these cases to detect patterns. This same information is also being entered in the FBI's national database called VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program). An MOU I signed with the FBI in 1999 requires us to provide this information. The review is also helping us analyze and determine the best "solvability factors" for addressing open cases. Much of this work is based on the research of Professor Charles Wellford, who you will hear from later. Finally, the review is identifying skills deficiencies in our detectives—information that is critical to the ongoing development of training.

Taken individually, none of these reforms is enough to dramatically improve our performance in solving homicide. But taken as a whole, these changes represent a major step forward in ensuring quality, enhancing accountability and improving performance.

I have said all along that the problems in our criminal investigative capacity are systemic problems that have developed, literally, over decades. For too long, some members of the Department, the public and the news media—some of whom are in this chamber today—have focused on pointing fingers and assigning blame for past problems. Their perspectives are often narrow, representing a snapshot in time, and not taking the long view.

But now is the time to stop pointing fingers and start finding solutions. These problems have developed over decades, but now it is my responsibility to fix them. Rather than search for quick fixes or panaceas, we are concentrating on the fundamental, systemic, long-term changes that need to take place.

Even with these changes, certain holes remain in our infrastructure to support homicide investigations. Today, I am calling on this Committee and the Council as a whole to support the MPDC in filling some of these critical needs.

For example, the District of Columbia is probably the only major city in the country that does not operate and maintain its own crime laboratory, or at least have direct access to a state-operated lab. Most of our forensic evidence is sent to the FBI Laboratory for processing. And while the FBI has one of the best crime labs in the world, the Bureau has a huge demand for its lab services and must set its own priorities. To guarantee the kind of quality and turnaround needed for criminal investigations today, our city needs a fully functional, state-of-the-art crime laboratory of its own.

In addition, our jurisdiction (unlike most others) lacks an effective DNA law - one that would support the police in the collection and analysis of DNA evidence. A strong DNA law would support a wide range of criminal investigations—not just homicides, but also sexual assaults and other violent offenses.

I hope our Department can count on the Council's support of these two common-sense measures, as we continue to evaluate and reform our criminal investigative process. We also need the support of the Council and the FOP as we continue to develop standards for selection, retention, training and performance evaluation for detectives.

I want to thank the Committee once again for the opportunity to present this opening statement for the record. In an area as critical as this one, I think it is important for you and the community to understand the changing dynamics of homicide in our city. Murders continue to fall, but solving them has become more challenging with the increase in stranger killings, reluctant witnesses and, in some cases, more sophisticated killers.

I think it is also important to remember that there is no panacea to boosting our homicide clearance rate. Some people seem to think that centralizing our detectives at Police Headquarters is somehow a "magic bullet." It's not. Regardless of where a detective's desk may be located, it is the basics of criminal investigations—crime scene processing, interviews and interrogations, analytical thought, and a combination of compassion and tenacity—that will make the difference.

Finally, we have taken a number of steps to improve our basic blocking and tackling in this area. Badly needed reforms are already under way in the selection and training of detectives, in the technology they use, and especially, in the basic procedures that are followed in investigating each and every homicide.

We are making important strides in this area. But to be successful, we still must rely on the public's cooperation in coming forward and providing information. To support this effort, we have increased the reward offered for information leading to arrest and conviction in homicide cases from $1,000 dollars to $10,000 dollars. As a Department and as a community, we must adopt a collective intolerance for violence—and take joint responsibility for addressing this challenge.

I will be the first to acknowledge that we have had problems in the past when it comes to investigating and closing homicide cases. But these are problems that we can fix—and that we have already begun to fix. I would ask the Council to keep in mind the Department's recent track record in addressing major issues such as this one.

Two years ago, we were here talking about our Department's use of force policies and procedures. This, of course, followed the Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Washington Post which revealed that MPDC officers used deadly force more often than officers in any other major city in the country. Two years later, we are no longer talking about use of force in the MPDC. Why? Because our police-involved shootings have fallen by 78 percent over the last two years. Through better policies, better training and better operating procedures, we have gone from being a national embarrassment when it comes to the use of force to a national model for efficiency and performance.

I pledge to you today that we are applying the same type of thoughtful, systemic approach—and the same level of determination—to addressing the homicide problem in our city. Our goals are to continue reducing the levels of violence in our city, while dramatically improving our ability to solve more of the crimes that do occur. With the support of the Council and the community—and for the sake of the survivors of homicide—we look forward to achieving even greater success in the future.

Thank you.