Val Demings wants to catch more murderers

A smart way to fight crime

RSVPs for the anniversary party are now closed — we got a tremendous response to Friday’s email and are currently trying to sort through the waiting list. But we hope to have more in the future.

One of my many contrarian takes is that murder is wrong, morally speaking, and that people who do it ought to be caught and punished.

But as the good people at the Murder Accountability Project have been documenting for years, a shockingly small share of American homicide cases are closed by the police. And amidst the 2020 murder surge and the seemingly related slowdown in police activity, the clearance rate dropped to a new low of less than 55%.

On Thursday, Rep. Val Demings introduced a bill she calls the VICTIM Act to create a Justice Department grant program that gives money to police agencies to try to improve this. Cash could go to hiring or training investigators, to evidence processing and related functions, or to victim services. In exchange, you’d need to report to DOJ how your spending plans are going to improve your clearance rate. Critically, the bill also has money for the National Institute of Justice to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the policies and procedures implemented by the grantees. You’re not just pushing money out to help solve crimes; you are hopefully generating useful social science evidence that can inform improved policing around the country.

Demings (if you don’t know her) is an interesting figure — she’s a Black woman who used to be Chief of Police in Orlando and did a great job as an impeachment manager in Trump’s first trial. Biden vetted her for the Vice Presidential nomination but decided to go in a different, safer direction. She’s the kind of person you’d normally call a “rising star,” but she’s leaving the House to run for U.S. Senate next year, and I’m kind of afraid that running in an R+5 state in a tough midterm cycle is a political suicide mission.

That said, she’s raised a ton of money, and I like her a lot. I just hope she doesn’t run one of these races where you raise bucketloads of cash from out-of-state donors and then get your butt kicked.

To try seriously to win the race, she’ll need to persuade some voters who pulled the lever for Trump twice, and that means distinguishing herself from the national Democratic Party possibly in ways that make some progressives uncomfortable. I don’t know whether trying harder to catch more murderers will do the trick, but I think it’s a great idea.

Police solve more crimes when they throw more resources at it

Solving serious violent crimes is hard. But the good news is, based on the research that’s available, we do have some idea how to do it. I wrote a bit about this over the summer:

A very telling study out of Boston looked at why the Boston PD was so much more likely to solve murder cases than non-fatal shooting cases. After all, the underlying differences between a shooting that the victim survives and one in which the victim dies don’t really seem all that relevant from an investigative perspective. If anything, you might think it would be easier to solve non-fatal shootings since you have a living victim who can, in many cases, be a witness.

Part of the answer is that homicide is a more serious crime than “shot a guy but he lived,” so they invested more detective hours in trying to solve the homicides. Philip Cook, Anthony Braga, Brandon Turchan, and Lisa Barao looked at how this plays out in practice and found that for the first two days, the department deploys similar amounts of manpower whether the shooting is fatal or not. But if it’s non-fatal, the investigation ends after day two, while for murders, they keep working the case. And while about half of all cleared homicides are solved within that two-day window, the other half is solved through prolonged investigation. Inside that window, fatal and non-fatal shootings are solved at the same rate. But fatal shootings are twice as likely to be solved overall because of the value of continued investigation.

As we see in Boston and elsewhere, these cases are solved when more officers are assigned to investigate. The non-fatal shooting bit appears to be particularly low-hanging fruit, and Demings’ bill smartly includes non-fatal shootings as a target variable.

One reason cracking down on non-fatal shootings seems particularly promising is that often the people doing the non-fatal shootings are also the people doing the murders. It’s just a case of how good your aim is and how close the victim is to a quality trauma center. What you want to do is make everyone generally more afraid to run around town shooting people.

Closed cases are the best deterrence

In my view, getting better at solving crimes is also the key to ultimately reducing some of the cruelty of the American criminal justice system.

Prison reduces crime in two ways: deterrence (people are afraid of going to jail so they don’t do crimes) and incapacitation (people are in prison so they’re not out on the street doing crimes).

Because people tend to “age out” of criminal activity (especially violence), a 10-year prison sentence contains more than half the incapacitation impact of a 20-year prison sentence. On the deterrence side, most people are somewhat impulsive and prone to discounting the future, and the people who get involved in serious criminal activity tend to have below-average intelligence and impulse control. So an 80% chance of doing 10 years in prison has more deterrence power than a 40% chance of doing 20 years. A major source of inspiration for America’s unusually harsh prison sentences was Gary Becker’s idea that since solving crimes is hard, we should invest in massive prisons instead. But this is an area where actual human behavior diverges spectacularly from cartoonish homo economicus models.

It would be more just, more effective, and more humane to punish a much larger share of serious offenders without keeping them locked up for so long.

Ideally, this means fewer people committing serious crimes (because they are effectively deterred) and plenty of investigative resources available for each serious crime (because there are fewer murders per detective), which locks in a high level of deterrence. Prisons with smaller populations don’t need to be hellish, and you can focus in a real way on treatment and rehabilitation in most cases.

After the steep 1990s crime drop, crime rates continued drifting downward year after year. When that trend continued even into the face of the Great Recession, I think reformers got complacent and out over their skis. They decided crime wasn’t really an issue anymore (even though America continued to have a very high murder rate compared to other rich countries) and that criminal justice reform had bipartisan prospects as a way to save money during a state budget squeeze. The bump in murders in 2015 should have unsettled that, but crime drifted down again for a few years until the 2020 murder surge. But with shootings still high and possibly rising in 2021, I think the old paradigm where you forget about crime and just focus on reform is dead. If you want to see meaningful reform of the punitive apparatus, the flip side has to be finding less cruel ways to deter.

Actually catching criminals seems like the obvious route.

Catching criminals is good, actually

Demings very reasonably focuses on the most serious crime, murder, and its close cousin, the non-fatal shooting.

But the general principle “it is good to catch people when they commit crimes” applies very broadly. I’ve been distressed by reports that some of the Biden administration’s tax enforcement ideas are getting stripped out of the reconciliation bill. But I do believe that money to fund the tax police at the IRS is still in the mix, and I think that’s very important. I also hope Biden’s Justice Department will try to revisit the softball approach to white-collar crime that took root after the Bush-era Enron prosecution.

More fundamentally, though, I think we ought to move away from the idea that spotty enforcement is a good way to create a humane criminal justice system.

A few years ago Caleb Watney and Nila Balala wrote a mostly sensible paper on reasonable guardrails for the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement that also included one sentence I found misguided: “Additionally, to prevent the use of facial recognition for minor offenses like shoplifting, lawmakers could identify which offenses rise to a level of seriousness that would warrant the privacy intrusion the technology creates.”

If facial recognition techniques can reliably identify the perpetrators of minor crimes, we should use them for that purpose. If we recoil from that idea because we fear meting out punishment to people who are committing relatively minor offenses, then we ought to make the punishment lighter. There would probably be very little shoplifting if shoplifters were highly likely to be caught, and that would be true even if the punishment was fairly light. And to the extent that some people would choose to blow off the punishment, you could make the sanction tougher on rare repeat offenders — since if you’re shoplifting constantly, that’s really not such a minor offense.

What’s probably true is that shoplifting is too minor to invest tons of law enforcement resources into investigating — we need investigators doing a better job of closing murders and non-fatal shootings. But if we can use technology to enhance investigative productivity for lower-level offenses we should absolutely do that. Right now, American criminal justice has very little consistency — there’s tons of crime, tons of people getting away with crimes, and very harsh sentences doled out sporadically. It’s really bad, and a renewed focus on sound investigations should be part of any reform agenda.