The Hunting of a Man

In Emile Gaboriau’s The Widow Lerouge, considered by some to be “the first detective novel,” amateur detective Père Tabaret gushed about the thrill of solving a crime:

“I shrug the shoulder when I see a foolish fellow pay twenty-five francs for the right of hunting a hare. What a prize! Give me the hunting of a man! That calls the faculties into play, and the victory is not inglorious! The game in my sport is worth the hunter. He has against him intelligence, force and cunning. The arms are nearly equal. Ah! if people knew the excitement of these parties of hide and seek which are played between the criminal and the detective, everybody would be wanting employment at the bureau of secret police.”

But for the last 50 years, despite steady advances in forensic technology like DNA profiling, digital fingerprint matching and bullet fragment analysis, the percentage of US homicide cases that are solved has been decreasing, from 90 percent in 1965 to 64 percent in 2012.

Three reasons are typically given for this change:

  1. A shift in the profile of the typical murder
  2. A decline in the resources devoted to crime solving
  3. Worsening relationships between the police and the public

During the 1960s and ’70s, “crimes of passion,” where the victim knows the killer, accounted for about 70 percent of US homicides. Some criminal investigators claim, however, that an increase in drugs and gangs means the crimes now more often involve strangers and are thus harder to solve than those between family members or friends. A fear of retaliation can also make witnesses to these crimes reluctant to cooperate, according to a study by three FBI researchers.

Others point to decreased emphasis on the police work needed to solve cases. “The crime waves of the 1970s and ’80s pushed police departments toward prevention strategiesbroken-window patrols, more officer visibility in high-crime areas, stop-and-frisk—and solving crimes became secondary,” according to Michigan State University criminologist David L. Carter.

Decreasing the initial response time and raising the number of detectives assigned to solving a case can lead to more homicide arrests, according to a 1999 Maryland study. But cuts in municipal budgets have made many cities unable to reduce investigators’ homicide investigation caseloads to manageable levels.

Additionally, mistrust of the police and a corresponding unwillingness to cooperate with investigators can make the new forensic techniques less effective. Houston police Sergeant Mike Peters insisted, “Technology is great, but it’s the ability to get people to talk that’s important. That solves cases.” As the author of the definitive manual on homicide investigation said, “If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.”

Data compiled by the Murder Accountability Project points to a clear correlation between the number of crimes that are solved and the number that are committed. It shows that in cities where the percentage of crimes solved is above average, the murder rate is just over half that of cities where the percentage solved is below average.

What would it take to imbue more police departments with Monsieur Tabaret’s excitement for the pursuit of criminals and to convince their communities that, indeed, they are pursuing justice?

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