BY NATHAN DENZIN | The Badger Project
The homicide clearance rate in Wisconsin is one of the highest in the country, according to a national nonprofit which tracks the data.
About 72 percent of homicides committed in Wisconsin over the last decade were “cleared” — usually meaning law enforcement filed charges in the case — according to the Murder Accountability Project. That does not mean a conviction was won.
The national homicide clearance rate in that time period is about 57 percent.
Wisconsin’s murder clearance rate is the eleventh best in the country in that time, according to an analysis of the data by The Badger Project.
The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2020 on Monday. Like many states, Wisconsin saw a big increase in homicides in the tumultuous pandemic year of 2020 — from 177 in 2019 way up to 303.
From 2011-2020, the five states with the highest rates of clearing homicides are, starting at the top: Maine, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota and Wyoming. The states with the worst rates are, starting at the bottom: Michigan, Rhode Island, Ohio, Indiana, and Massachusetts.
Law enforcement documented more than 1,900 homicides in Wisconsin from 2011-2020, according to the Murder Accountability Project. Nearly 1,400 of those homicides were cleared. That puts Wisconsin’s clearance rate as the fourth-best in states with over 1,000 murders in that time period. In that cohort, only Minnesota, Nevada and North Carolina have higher rates at 73, 73.5 and 76 percent, respectively.
Marathon County documented 18 homicides in the 10 years surveyed, with 16 of those cleared for an 89 percent rate.
Generally, law enforcement agencies can clear offenses in one of two ways, though individual states may have slightly different guidelines. Agencies can clear homicides by filing charges and making an arrest, or by “exceptional means” — which could mean the suspect passed away, the victim won’t cooperate with the prosecution, or the offender cannot be extradited — according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program.
“There are some very specific factors that improve homicide clearances,” said Eric Piza, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The number of detectives that are assigned to specific homicides, engaging in rigorous outreach to communities who suffer the most from homicides and doing as much follow up to potential witnesses as possible.”
The majority of Wisconsin homicides — 1,229 — occurred in Milwaukee County over the 10 year period surveyed. The county has a clearance rate of just under 64 percent in that time.
Milwaukee County includes the city of Milwaukee, as well as some immediate suburbs like West Allis and Wauwatosa.
Fewer than half of homicides in the city of Milwaukee ended in a suspect convicted in a crime, according to a 2019 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Piling on to that bad news, the city suffered a record 190 murders in 2020 and is ahead of that pace with 146 so far in 2021.
“What we’ve been seeing post-George Floyd is that residents in larger cities may not view the police very well, which means they don’t come forward with information that could be used in an investigation,” Piza said. “There isn’t a quick fix for that issue either, it’s going to take sustained effort and communication between police and community to bridge that gap over time.”
More than 80 percent of the homicide victims in Milwaukee over the last six years have been Black, according to the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission. The city is about 39 percent Black, according to the U.S. Census.
Dane County, home to the state’s second-largest city of Madison, saw only 102 homicides between 2011-2020, with a clearance rate of about 79 percent.
“Despite increases in some larger cities, police have generally been successful at reducing violence the last few decades,” Piza said. “Law enforcement is able to solve more murders in some areas just because there are fewer of them relative to the population than there were 50 years ago.”
The homicide clearance rate in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee sits at over 86 percent, according to The Badger Project’s investigation. That would be higher than any state but Maine, which has the highest clearance rate in the country.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.