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Breaking the Cycle of Silence on Unsolved Murders

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: May 26, 2008

Editor's Note: The appalling high number of unsolved murders of blacks and Latinos is not solely a crisis in South Los Angeles. Its a crisis in other big cities as well.

A makeshift memorial site at a busy street corner in South Los Angeles. Their tears of sadness were mixed with shouts of anger over the murder of 19-year-old Antwan Cole, gunned down in a drive by shooting last February. The anger was aimed at the Los Angeles County Sheriffs homicide investigators for not solving the murder and at community residents for not helping them solve the killing. Cole was gunned down in broad daylight at a busy intersection while waiting for a bus to go to his security patrol job.

Almost certainly there were witnesses to the killing. Yet Coles murder is still officially listed on the books as unsolved. This is not unique. There is a staggering backlog of more than 1000 unsolved murders in South Los Angeles. The overwhelming majority of the victims were young black and Latinos aged 18 to 25 years old. Despite the routine media depictions of these shootings as gang related, most of the victims, like Cole, had no known gang ties or involvement.

And, like Cole, most of the murders have not been solved. Less than forty percent of the murders of blacks in South Los Angeles are solved. The figure is only slightly higher for Latinos. This contrasts with a homicide clearance rate for whites in excess of fifty percent in L.A. County.

The appalling high number of unsolved murders of blacks and Latinos is not solely a crisis problem in South Los Angeles. Its a crisis problem in other big cities as well. While the clearance rate for homicides nationally is 65 percent, in some inner city big city neighborhoods its in single-digit figures.

There are two reasons for this. FBI figures show that murder rates have spiked in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and a dozen other cities as well as in South Los Angeles. The jump in homicides has dumped even more murder cases on the desks of severely under resourced and overworked homicide investigators in many big city police departments.

Homicide detectives in one of the Los Angeles Police Departments poorer divisions had 75% higher caseloads than detectives in two divisions in more affluent areas in 2007. The detectives in high homicide divisions handled an average of more than 10 cases per detective pair in 2007. In the other areas, detectives handled about six cases per pair. The Los Angeles County Sheriffs had a much higher caseload of murder cases in South Los Angeles than in other more affluent areas of Los Angeles County.

But even if homicide investigators had the time, staff and resources, it still wouldnt insure a higher clearance rate for unsolved murders in poor neighborhoods. Police and prosecutors in big cities scream loudly that they can't get people to come forth and tell what they know. Numerous studies have shown that blacks and Latinos are far more likely than any other group to distrust the police and less likely to talk to them about criminal acts. Many are also petrified at the thought of being labeled a snitch. Thats the tag that some silly, misguided rappers, activists and even some academics have plastered on those who inform to police on other blacks.

The fear factor though is a powerful disincentive for many not to provide information about violent crimes. Many are scared stiff that they'll suffer retaliation if they blow the whistle on a violent perpetrator, and that the police won't protect them. These are not totally false fears. City police departments spend far fewer dollars on witness protection programs than the federal government does. Many blacks and Latinos feel the risk is too great if they talk to the police.

This has put poor blacks and Latinos in even greater harms way. In Los Angeles, homicide investigators note that gang members that kill often have committed multiple killings. They are emboldened to continue their wanton violence precisely because they feel there is little chance that theyll be caught, and if they are that witnesses will not come forth to testify.

In New Orleans, where the murder rate is tops in the the nation, the problem of getting witnessnesses to come forth, ignited a storm of rage and demands for the resignation of Eddie Jordan, the citys first black District Attorney. He had to drop charges against the alleged shooters of several young blacks in a murder that made national headlines in June 2006, because a key witness disappeared. This further tossed an ugly glare on the problem of getting residents to provide information on killings.

The resistance of many blacks and Latinos to provide information that could help catch killers has frustrated and infuriated police and prosecutors, increased the spiral of violence that racks South Los Angeles and poor neighborhoods in other cities, and deepens the fear and panic of many blacks and Latinos over violent crime.

This insures that more young men such as Antwan Cole will be victims of senseless violence, and just as tragically that no one will pay a price for their killing. That is unless more are willing to break the cycle of silence and make those who kill pay that price.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House" (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).

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