After Raven Gant was fatally shot in an apparent domestic dispute in north Minneapolis Thanksgiving night, police quickly arrested a man at the scene.
Gant’s death was part of the city’s growing body count, with Minneapolis on pace to log its second-highest homicide tally in the past decade. At the same time, police have solved just over half those cases, according to an analysis of department data.
The data show that 23 of the city’s 41 homicides have been closed through an arrest or otherwise, a clearance rate of 56% — one solved case was a double homicide — with a little over a month left in the year.
In 2018, police made 21 homicide arrests as November closed out, compared with 32 homicides citywide — a 66% clearance rate.
Police officials say that clearance rates present simply a snapshot in time that doesn’t fully capture the homicide unit’s success, which includes solving 13 of the last 16 killings. Detectives also successfully closed three high-profile cases from previous years.
In the most recent case, Fourth Precinct patrol officers responded about 10:20 p.m. to a reported shooting in the 2600 block of N. James Avenue, in the Jordan neighborhood. On arriving, they found Gant, 27, suffering from a gunshot wound. Paramedics transported her to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead a short time later.
The suspect was later booked into the Hennepin County jail, where he remained on Friday as prosecutors weighed potential murder charges.
Minneapolis mirrors a national trend: While homicides and other violent acts have declined for years in most cities, police are solving fewer of those crimes.
Many possible explanations have been put forward: a hesitancy by residents to share information about crimes at a time of shaken trust in law enforcement; heightened scrutiny of police tactics amid a national reckoning over race and policing; and the fracturing of gangs into smaller, less organized cliques, making it difficult for police to track them.
Minneapolis police Cmdr. Bruce Folkens offered another theory. While technology has certainly helped make detectives’ jobs easier, he said, it’s also created new ways to frustrate them. Today, most murder investigations involve poring through hours of surveillance and body camera footage and gathering DNA evidence, which, depending on the jurisdiction, can take months to be analyzed. And today’s jurors, many of whom grew up on a steady diet of police shows like “CSI,” expect definitive and foolproof forensic evidence, Folkens said.
“Years and years and years ago, if you had one or two eyewitnesses, that was it,” said Folkens, whose division includes such investigative units as Homicide, Robbery and the Gang Interdiction Team. “People expect that with all this technology it should be easier to solve crimes, but actually it makes cases harder to solve, because there’s that raised expectation.”
The homicide unit is made up of 12 detectives divided into six two-person squads, a lieutenant and a full-time support technician. Homicide detectives meet weekly to share information and provide feedback about open cases, which officials say has helped close more cases.
Arrests in high-profile cases
This has led to some recent successes, involving the arrest and charging of suspects in the high-profile cases of Susan Spiller, who was killed by a teenager during a 2015 home invasion, Le’Vonte King Jason Jones, a 2-year-old killed in a 2016 drive-by shooting, and Jeanne Ann “Jeanie” Childs, whose brutal stabbing in her south Minneapolis home remained unsolved for a quarter-century.
There are many ways to calculate clearance rates, which vary widely by city. Most departments consider a case resolved if an arrest is made or it has been “exceptionally cleared,” meaning there is sufficient evidence to charge someone, but an arrest is not possible because, for example, the suspect has died or the death is determined to be in self-defense. Others count cases solved from an earlier year toward the current year’s tally — Minneapolis does not.
Across the river in St. Paul, police have historically solved a higher percentage of homicides. But that ratio has slipped in 2019 amid a surge in violence across the city; police have solved 20 of 30 homicides (including one officer-involved shooting), a lower clearance rate than the previous five-year average of 83% closures.
After St. Paul logged nine homicides in September, Chief Todd Axtell turned to the FBI for assistance in tackling the violence and assigned detectives from other units to help homicide investigators pursue leads, according to spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster. He said detectives expect to make arrests in several cases soon.
More than 300,000 homicides in the U.S. between 1965 and 2016 remain unsolved, according to the Murder Accountability Project, an online database of open homicides. Nationally, police have a clearance rate of two in every three homicides, a figure that has been falling since the 1960s.
Retired Dallas deputy police chief Craig Miller said he believes the decline has to do, in part, with a lowered reliance on eyewitness identifications at a time when disclosures of wrongful arrests nationwide have brought renewed criticism of the criminal justice system. Simply put, he says, detectives are having to gather more physical evidence to support their cases.
“I think the Innocence Project has shown us people who’ve been falsely accused based on witness accounts alone,” said Miller, who spent five years as the head of the homicide unit, where he says he oversaw 750 murder investigations. “There should be DNA, there should be fingerprints, there should be something there besides, ‘Hey I saw somebody else do it.’ ”