The drop in the Baltimore Police Department's homicide clearance rate in recent years was a sign that the violence on the streets was overwhelming our ability to maintain order and safety. Each case police couldn't close was not only a wound to the victim's family, it was also an invitation to more violence, either because the perpetrator was free to kill again or because the lack of consequences emboldened others.
But the recent rise in the clearance rate — it stands at about 50 percent so far this year, up from 30 percent in 2015 and 38.5 percent in 2016 — doesn't necessarily mean violent criminals are being sent to prison. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported this week, a cleared case doesn't necessarily mean a suspect has been arrested. It can also mean that police believe they know who committed a murder but that the case is closed for other reasons. In one case this year, that was because the suspect is believed to have fled to Mexico. In another, it was because the suspect was sentenced to life in prison for another crime. Five cases, though, were closed because the person police identified as the chief suspect was murdered. All that is a reminder that solving a case, from the police department's perspective, is not the same thing as ensuring that justice is served.
In that context, it's fair to ask what is accomplished by a recent policy change in the police department to abandon a practice in which prosecutors had to sign off on homicide cases before police brought charges. Commissioner Kevin Davis has criticized the old rule, which has been around in one form or another for years but as a formal policy since 2011, as preventing police from getting bad guys off the street. Does it do much good for police to arrest a suspect based on probable cause if prosecutors don't believe they can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt?
Mr. Davis says making an arrest in a case can bring new leads; when police take a dangerous person off the street, reluctant witnesses may come forward. Prosecutors say a premature arrest can cut off a potentially fruitful grand jury investigation. But the actual practical impact of having or abandoning the policy is likely quite small; based on accounts from people who have been involved on both sides, serious disputes about cases between police and prosecutors are relatively rare — perhaps occurring a handful of times a year.
But they can loom large in the minds of homicide detectives if they believe prosecutors are preventing them from arresting murderers. Commissioner Davis' move no doubt was a boost to morale in the department, even if the new committee he created to evaluate such cases doesn't appear to be a rubber stamp for the detectives.
The commissioner just needs to make sure the new protocol doesn't lead to a deterioration in relations between the police department and the state's attorney's office. The system works best on a basis of mutual trust and cooperation. Prosecutors may not think police have enough evidence to prove a murder case, but they may be able to help find other ways to put suspected violent criminals in prison on other charges. That may not be the same thing as "solving" a murder, whether from the somewhat artificial metric of the clearance rate or the more tangible one of bringing closure to a victim's family, but it gets dangerous people off the streets.
But ultimately what's going to make Baltimore safer is not a high clearance rate, it's getting convictions in murder cases. The biggest obstacle to that isn't any policy governing the relationship between police and prosecutors, it's the lack of trust between community and the police that prevents witnesses from coming forward, and it's a lack of faith in prosecutors' ability to win convictions that prevents them from testifying in court.
Until we solve those problems, we'll get more cases closed by street justice, murders repaid with murders and a cycle of violence without end.