Killers and Thieves Walking Free

Criminals are emboldened if they think they won’t get caught

By Mike Nichols

May 19, 2022 – The politicians and pundits are wringing their hands and sharpening their tongues again, trying to provide some sort of solution for the devastating and (speaking as a resident of downtown Milwaukee) frankly frightening spiral into lawlessness.

There are lots of reasons beyond the most obvious one, a lack of morality and self-control. Kids are growing up without fathers, without degrees, without jobs, without respect for police or authority. Guns are everywhere.

But how about a more basic explanation?

Common sense says criminals commit a lot more crimes when they know there is very little chance they’ll get caught.

We all know crime is exploding in Milwaukee. There were 194 homicides last year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, more than twice as many as there were as recently as 2019. Already this year, there have been more than 80. It’s not even warm yet; it’s May.

Murder gets the headlines. But that’s just a small part of the general mayhem in the city. There were, for example, 12,304 vehicle thefts in Milwaukee in 2021 – more than three times as many as 2019.

Troubling as that is, here’s the really stunning part: In 2021, only 353 vehicle thefts were “cleared by arrest” by the police. That’s less than 3%. Almost nobody who stole a car in Milwaukee got caught.  

Clearance rates for more serious crimes are better, but still abysmally low.[i] For aggravated assaults (which includes shootings), only 31% of offenses were cleared by arrest (resulting in charges) – while more than 500 of these “solved” crimes saw District Attorney John Chisholm “decline to prosecute.”

The clearance rate for homicide? Just 43%. Chillingly, most killers continue to walk the streets.

Lots of other cities have similarly low clearance rates for homicide, according to Sean Kennedy, a criminal justice researcher who is preparing an in-depth statewide analysis for the Badger Institute that we will use to make recommendations to elected officials.

But historically none of this is normal. Between 1984 and 1997, when annual homicides ranged from 117 to 240, 85% of homicides in Milwaukee and 81% of homicides in Wisconsin as a whole were cleared, according to a study by the Statistical Analysis Center of the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance.

“Solving big city murders is hard work and takes both manpower and manhours – two things in short supply in Milwaukee as homicide numbers soar. Worse, many criminals escalate toward more serious and violent offenses if given the opportunity – so the failure to catch and jail criminals will only lead to more, often serious, crime in the future, not to mention emboldening other would-be offenders in the knowledge that their crimes won’t reap consequences,” said Kennedy.

The Badger Institute has looked into low clearance rates for homicides before.

Back in 2016, when our magazine was called Wisconsin Interest, Dave Daley wrote the following:

The explosion of murders in Milwaukee is a nonstop and, by now, well-known horror story: drug dealers shooting up the wrong houses, killing young children; a woman dying of stab wounds while waiting 22 minutes for police to respond to frantic 911 calls; and a three-day stretch in March when seven people were slain — including a 23-year-old woman and her unborn child, and a mother and her 12-year-old son. In 2015, Milwaukee had nearly a 70% jump in homicides — 145, compared with 86 in 2014, making it one of the most dangerous big cities in the United States.

Lost amid the bewilderment, tears, anger and clichéd promises to somehow get to the root of the violence, however, is an even more frightening statistic: The killers in four of every 10 Milwaukee murders are still on the streets, walking free. Milwaukee’s once-vaunted homicide clearance rate has fallen steadily over the past several years, from 93% in 2008 to an alarming 61% in 2015.

Six years later, again, that percentage is down to 43%. Instead of four of every 10, it’s now more like six of every 10 walking free.

Daley’s story quoted a union leader as saying at that time that part of the problem was a lack of or improper use of detectives – a claim rebutted by then chief Edward Flynn’s office. What’s clear is that, whatever the reasons, it’s gotten worse. More cops used the right way would certainly help – an obvious solution that is complicated by overwhelming budget problems caused by irresponsible city leaders who gave incredibly expensive benefit packages to public employees that now demand an enormous annual influx of property tax dollars. But that’s just part of the problem.

Cops have a hard job, harder than ever – especially in areas where politicians and school board members have helped convince residents not to trust the police, not to talk to them about what they know about the latest killing or car theft or assault. As I’ve written before, pulling cops out of schools, further eroding that relationship with police and kids at a young age, was exactly the wrong message.

The Milwaukee Police Department did not respond by deadline to a request for comment on clearance rates or what leaders there might do to address the issue.

There is a whole cottage industry out there of experts who debate causes of crime, argue over whether repercussions and penalties matter, whether criminals are just opportunists who no matter what never think they’ll get caught.

But there’s also such a thing as common sense, and common sense says a kid thinking about taking a car for a joy ride is going to say “what the hell” if he knows someone who did it last month and never got caught. Same goes, I submit, for assaulting someone. Or shooting them on the street – and just casually walking away.  

Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.

[i] Cleared cases aren’t necessarily ones that result in conviction. They are basically just cases that the police are able to close by arrest or some other means (for example, if a prime suspect dies).  Clearance rates are calculated by dividing the number of cleared cases by the total number of such crimes recorded in a year although some of the cleared cases will invariably pertain to crimes that were committed in a prior year. So, the data is not perfect, but it is revealing – and more than troubling.