More than half of all homicides in Boston in 2014 were outdoor shootings, many of them likely gang-related, committed under cover of darkness, and the most difficult type of killing to solve, according to Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.
“Typically, there are no witnesses,” said Conley. “The crime was done with a degree of planning. The victim is typically ambushed in some way. The assailant is gone in a matter of seconds. And he or she leaves virtually nothing in the way of forensic evidence.”
The city’s homicide clearance rate fell to 45 percent in 2014, down from 53 percent in 2013 and 58 percent the year before, according to statistics from Conley’s office.
Conley said he believed the drop was caused by a burst of violence last January, when nine people were killed, including four shot to death during a four-day span in killings that officials said were probably all gang-related. Officials indicted a Mattapan man in connection with one fatal stabbing; the other eight cases remain open.
“They’ve been difficult to solve,” said Conley. “All I would classify as active.”
The city’s clearance rate is lower than the national average, which was 57 percent in 2013, the last year for which statistics were available. However, Conley said, the city of Boston only considers a case “cleared” when officials have made an arrest or indicted someone — or, in rare cases, when a perpetrator is identified but is dead. In other cities, he said, a case can be considered cleared without charges being brought, if officials feel they know who did it but could not make an arrest.
Superintendent Robert Merner, head of the Bureau of Investigative Services, said that FBI guidelines allow departments until the end of January to solve cases from the previous year, so the clearance rate could rise. And, he said, officials have as many as nine cases before a grand jury.
When Suffolk prosecutors do bring homicide charges, said Conley, they have a high conviction rate — 86 percent in 2014 — and less than 1 percent of cases are dismissed before trial.
Nationally, according to statistics from his office, other cities comparable to Boston see about 17 percent of their cases dismissed before trial.
When the national clearance rate average is adjusted to account for the 17 percent dismissal rate in other cities, Boston did slightly better last year than the adjusted national average, which in 2013, the last year for which statistics were available, was 40 percent.
“We don’t clear cases, we solve them,” said Conley. “It’s not about putting the handcuffs on somebody, it’s about solving the case with good evidence. That’s what gives families closure.”
Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police officer who is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College, said conviction rates are more telling than clearance rates, especially because some cities can inflate their clearance rate by bringing charges in a weak case or simply saying they solved a case without bringing charges at all.
“Here in Boston, we’re getting a more accurate and an honest picture of how many people are being convicted,” he said.
But Monalisa Smith, who founded Mothers for Justice and Equality in 2010 after her nephew was shot to death in Grove Hall, said talking about figures and averages obscures the fact that there are too many families walking around the city wondering who killed their loved ones.
“These percentages are all noteworthy, but the fact is that we have too many families that are still hurting because they have no justice,” said Smith, whose nephew’s killing has not been solved. “Their child’s life didn’t matter.”
Fifty-three killings were recorded in Boston in 2014, though one of those occurred in 2013 but was not ruled a homicide until 2014. Of those 53 homicides, Conley said, 30 were outdoor shootings; six were indoor shootings; seven were outdoor stabbings; six were indoor stabbings; three were violent acts such as strangulation or beating that occurred indoors; one was an act of violence that occurred outdoors.
Detectives solved 24 homicide cases in 2014, though only 17 of those were committed in 2014.
“Am I troubled that we only did 17 . . . yes,” said Merner. “Is the commissioner troubled? Yes. But I will be troubled until I have 100 percent.”
Of the outdoor shootings that occurred in 2014, police solved fewer than 20 percent, according to district attorney statistics — the lowest rate of clearance of all types of homicides.
In an outdoor shooting, said Conley, investigators often have almost no physical evidence, save shell casings, which tell them little more than gun caliber. And because outdoor shootings are often gang-related, he said, the “stop snitching” culture prevents witnesses from stepping forward.
“One solution I’ve been pushing is a publicly owned safety camera network,” said Conley. “A video camera is an impartial witness with perfect recall. It is very powerful evidence.”
Currently, he said, police often rely on privately owned cameras. He acknowledged that public cameras would raise concerns about civil liberties, but said that could be allayed by deleting the footage regularly.
He also said the state witness protection program, which started in 2006 with $1 million but has steadily dropped over the years to under $100,000, should be funded at its original level. The fund is used to help move witnesses who are scared to testify.
Smith said she supported those initiatives — and asked why they had not already been undertaken. She said that some witnesses were reluctant to come forward simply because they had seen other homicides go unsolved.
Nolan said the task ahead for police is to continue to strengthen relationships with communities most affected by outdoor shootings and unsolved killings.
“That is a work in progress,” he said.