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2019 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Murder with Impunity

About the Project

The Washington Post’s examination of unsolved murder in America began with a simple question: Where is there no justice?

Reporters had heard over the years from residents in some neighborhoods, especially predominantly African American ones, that police were apathetic about solving crime in those areas. Neighbors complained that when someone was murdered, police infrequently brought the killers to justice, which left them free to keep killing.

A team of Post reporters compiled case-level information for more than 50,000 homicides in 50 of the nation’s largest cities. The data collected covered a decade and went far beyond the scope of homicide records gathered by the FBI, including details on whether the murder led to an arrest and the location of the killing. We plotted the data on interactive maps, including demographic information about the victim and the neighborhood.

One critical finding: The success rate of homicide investigations in dozens of cities has worsened. While the number of killings has fallen to historic lows in many places, two-thirds of the departments surveyed had lower homicide arrest rates than they did 10 years ago.

The project revealed extreme disparities. In some cities, neighborhoods where virtually all the homicides led to an arrest sat across the street from areas where almost no murders led to an arrest. Just as our initial sources had warned us, the failures perpetuate a cycle: Residents are less likely to cooperate with police, and criminals are emboldened.

No government agency tracks homicide nationwide in a manner that allows killings to be analyzed by arrests or address. To study murders at that level of detail, reporters had to gather data from local police departments through open-records requests and numerous phone calls and emails, a process that took about 16 months.

Some police departments balked at the requests, tried to charge unreasonable fees or provided incomplete or useless data. Assembling the data from all 50 cities required extensive negotiations with officials in many departments. In one city, a police official said disclosing homicide data would require extensive time and cost $252,000 in fees. The Post objected, and, in the end, police provided the data for $1.

Another major obstacle was the wide range of formats in which the departments provided the data. Reporters had to spend an extensive amount of time to clean and standardize the data so that it could be compiled into a database.

In some cases, reporters had to enter thousands of records by hand. In others, reporters had to reformat thousands of individual homicide addresses. For one department, reporters had to verify the names of 2,000 defendants with court records because of inconsistencies in how police had logged suspects’ names.