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Back to Archives | Back to August 2012 Contents 

Research in Brief: Homicide Solvability

By John Jarvis, Chief Criminologist, FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia; and Wendy C. Regoeczi, Associate Professor, Sociology and Criminology; Director, Criminology Research Center, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio

The IACP Research Advisory Committee is proud to offer the monthly “Research in Brief” column. This column features evidence-based research summaries that highlight actionable recommendations for Police Chief magazine readers to consider within their own agencies. The goal of the column is to feature research that is innovative, credible, and relevant to a diverse law enforcement audience.

his brief provides an overview of recent research findings pertaining to clearance rates for homicide. This is traditionally defined by a calculation of the annual number of homicides solved in a locality divided by the number of homicides recorded that year. The national rate has been reported to be 62 percent to 65 percent over the past 10 years. The dramatic decline in homicide clearance rates observed since the 1960s has called attention by some to increased legal constraints on police practices (for example, Miranda warnings and search and seizure rules) that have hampered investigative efforts; changes in the nature of those involved (that is, more stranger, felony-related, and drug homicides, with fewer intimate partner killings); and changes in societal level factors such as community support for police.1 At a case level, individual case characteristics (for example, weapon use, circumstances, and availability of witnesses) and police investigative practices (for example, first responders securing the scene, the number of detectives assigned to a case, the availability of overtime, the use of computerized databases in investigations, and the interaction with the medical examiner or coroner) have been shown to impact solvability.2 While the research does not point to a single, effective investigative approach for law enforcement to adopt, there are important findings that can assist individual agencies in formulating strategies to increase homicide solvability.

These findings follow:

Police Personnel and Management

  • Agencies must commit to the importance of ongoing training of police patrol as first responders to these incidents, whose actions often impact the success of all subsequent investigative efforts.3
  • Agencies must identify, (re)train, and retain homicide investigators. Staff turnover in homicide units often negatively affects case solvability.4
  • Agencies must develop and sustain good, working relationships with other partners in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, medical examiners, and other medicolegal personnel that impact the likelihood of case resolutions.

Investigative Practices

  • Agencies must maintain an adequate number of detectives and other personnel to respond to caseloads.5 The literature does not provide a specific recommendation, but a baseline staffing level of homicide units with more detectives being assigned to specific cases is likely optimal.
  • Agencies must identify witnesses or other leads through on-scene activities. Follow-up canvasses of the crime scene area also are important. Individual case outcomes have often been shown to be influenced by these eforts.
  • Agencies’ conducting a thorough collection and analysis of physical and electronic evidence relevant to the case continues to be essential to investigations. However, future research examining the use and the quality of forensic information in daily homicide investigations is required to resolve current debates on the importance of forensic evidence in clearing homicides.6

Community Factors

  • Community involvement remains critical. While early studies suggested notions of police devaluing certain victims of homicide, this possibility seems less likely today due to internal and external oversight that has emerged over the last 35 years.7
  • In contrast, sustaining trust in the police by community members is just as important. If community members do not trust or value the police as an institution to resolve disputes, efforts to investigate crime and protect the community will be hampered by such police devaluing.8
  • The likelihood of solving a homicide remains at around two out of three. Two points are relevant here. First, not all homicides may be solvable, given their complexity, contamination of evidence, lag in discovery, and so forth. Second, while some cases may be unsolvable, many more are likely solvable than the current 65 percent.
  • Lastly, the promise for the future is that investigative practices are more sophisticated and informed by research than ever before, as evidenced by a proliferation of general (for example, geographic information systems and hot spots) and specific crime analysis (such as, criminal investigative analysis and intelligence analysis) in many agencies. The continual advancement of forensic capabilities (for example, trace or touch DNA and cyberforensics) also supports this notion. As such, police agencies are continually striving to increase the solvability of the cases that come to their attention.

We hope that this research brief provides some guidance in advancing these efforts. ♦


1Paul G. Cassel and Richard Fowles, “Falling Clearance Rates after Miranda: Coincidence or Consequence?” Stanford Law Review 50, no. 4 (1998): 1181–1191; Graham C. Ousey and Matthew R. Lee, “To Know the Unknown: The Decline in Homicide Clearance Rates, 1980-2000,” Criminal Justice Review 35, no. 2 (2010): 141–158.
2Kenneth J. Litwin and Yili Xu, “The Dynamic Nature of Homicide Clearances: A Multilevel Model Comparison of Three Time Periods,” Homicide Studies 11, no. 2 (2007): 94–114; Janice L. Puckett and Richard J. Lundman, “Factors Affecting Homicide Clearances: Multivariate Analysis of a More Complete Conceptual Framework,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40, no. 2 (2003): 171–193; Wendy C. Regoeczi, John Jarvis, and Marc Riedel, “Clearing Murders: Is It about Time?” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 45, no. 2 (2008): 142–162; and Charles Wellford and James Cronin, An Analysis of Variables Affecting the Clearance of Homicides: A Multistate Study (Washington, D.C.: Justice Research and Statistics Association, 1999), _Homicide.html (accessed June 27, 2012).
3Carl Jensen, “A Test of Bounded Rationality in Police Investigative Decision Making” (unpublished dissertation, University of Maryland, 2003); and Wellford and Cronin, An Analysis of Variables Affecting the Clearance of Homicides.
4Timothy G. Keel, John P. Jarvis, and Yvonne E. Muirhead, “An Exploratory Analysis of Factors Affecting Homicide Investigations: Examining the Dynamics of Murder Clearance Rates,” Homicide Studies 13, no. 1 (2009): 50–68.
5Wellford and Cronin, An Analysis of Variables Affecting the Clearance of Homicides.
6Deborah Baskin and Ira Sommers, “The Influence of Forensic Evidence on the Case Outcomes of Homicide Incidents,” Journal of Criminal Justice 38 (2010): 1141–1149; Tom McEwen, Evaluation of the Phoenix Homicide Clearance Project (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, 2009); and David A. Schroeder and Michael D. White, “Exploring the Use of DNA Evidence in Homicide Investigations: Implications for Detective Work and Case Clearance,” Police Quarterly 12 (2009): 319–342.
7Donald Black, The Behavior of Law (New York: Academic Press, 1976).
8Keel et al. “An Exploratory Analysis of Factors Affecting Homicide Investigations”; and Wendy C. Regoeczi and John Jarvis, “Beyond the Social Production of Homicide Rates: Extending Social Disorganization Theory to Explain Homicide Case Outcomes,” Justice Quarterly (forthcoming).

Action areas

  1. Review the suggestions offered on homicide solvability in the three areas above. In which areas could your agency improve?
  2. Identify areas in which sustainable partnerships could improve homicide solvability in your agency.
  3. View the full studies used to conduct this literature review for a better understanding of ways your agency could improve homicide solvability.
Interested in submitting a research summary for Research in Brief? Email

Please cite as:

John Jarvis and Wendy C. Regoeczi, "Homicide Solvability," Research in Brief, The Police Chief 79 (August 2012): 10–11.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 8, August 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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