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Reasons Behind Low Rate Of Solving Homicides in Minneapolis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than half the homicides committed in Minneapolis this year have yet to be solved. Police officials say there are a number of factors making it harder for them to arrest murder suspects. It is yet another hurdle for a department trying to restore public trust following the police killing of George Floyd last May. Minnesota Public Radio's Brandt Williams reports.

BRANDT WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Kimberly Barber's brother Frank went out after midnight and into the wee hours of the morning on November 24 to drop off a phone to a friend. Later that afternoon, one of Kimberly's other brothers called her to break the news that Frank wouldn't be coming back at all.

KIMBERLY BARBER: And he was just crying. I just kept screaming, don't tell me. Don't tell me.

WILLIAMS: Minneapolis police found 49-year-old Frank Lester Barber's body in a vehicle, and paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. His killer is still at large. Sadly, Barber's case is not that unusual these days. So far this year, the Minneapolis Police Department has solved around 40% of its homicide cases. FBI data shows that in 2019, the assault rate for similar sized cities was nearly 52%.

Minneapolis Police commander Charlie Adams says there are a few reasons why the clearance rate this year is so low. Like many large U.S. cities, Minneapolis has seen a significant jump in homicides. And Adams says the number of officers and investigators is shrinking. He says the last time the city saw so many killings was in the late 1990s, when the department's homicide unit had more than 20 investigators. Adams says now there are about a dozen.

CHARLIE ADAMS: And I don't see me getting a replacement in the future if people continue to leave the department.

WILLIAMS: Since the beginning of the year, more than 130 officers have either retired or taken extended leave. City officials say that's nearly triple the normal attrition rate. Homicide investigators are some of the most experienced officers. To work in the homicide unit, Adams says officers have to at least achieve the rank of sergeant and have experience in other types of investigations. But he says the department's homicide investigators are doing their best under very difficult circumstances.

ADAMS: I'm just really proud of my guys, with the lack of manpower they have, that they continue to work every day and try to bring closure to these families.

WILLIAMS: The majority of the families most affected by homicide are African American. And criminologist David Squier Jones says the high number of killings and the low clearance rate combined with a history of unequal treatment of Black residents presents another barrier. Jones says it's especially problematic when police who patrol Black communities are seen as being quick to make arrests for minor crimes but are slow to arrest people for homicide.

DAVID SQUIER JONES: It's a real challenge, and I think it's sort of another potential proverbial nail in the coffin of Minneapolis Police Department's legacy this last year.

WILLIAMS: All Kimberly Barber wants is for people to come forward with information to help police find who killed her brother Frank. She says knowing that person is still out there haunts her.

BARBER: It's the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life. It's hard. It's very hard because I can't even explain how I feel.

WILLIAMS: Barber is just one of dozens of family members looking for justice. While Minneapolis police try to find her brother's killer, they're also searching for ways to build more trust with communities of color. That's a problem that can't be solved by adding more officers.

For NPR News, I'm Brandt Williams in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF UYAMA HIROTO'S "YIN AND YANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.