Police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole and District Attorney Dan Conley gathered their homicide detectives and prosecutors for a group meeting Tuesday. They discussed the fact that only 30 percent of the city’s murders over the past two years had resulted in arrests — less than half the national average. After much deliberation, they concluded that it’s not their fault, and they don’t need to do anything different.
At a high-profile press conference following this powwow, O’Toole, Conley, and Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman all laid the blame squarely on Bostonians who don’t come forward with information. “This makes the work of the best, most dedicated detectives incredibly difficult,” Conley said. O’Toole pleaded for “parents, family members, friends, and neighbors” to come forward as witnesses. Coleman demanded that if people don’t “step up,” then “you’d better look in the mirror” for someone to blame for the clearance-rate problem.
They were able to offer no evidence that witness reluctance is dramatically worse in Boston than in other US cities — cities that nevertheless manage to solve murders — or for that matter worse than it had been before the current clearance slump.
But it’s easy to understand why local law-enforcement officials want to lay the blame on an unspecified number of anonymous, unverifiable, uncooperative witnesses. The uncomfortable facts are these: since Conley took office in February 2002, only 36 percent of Boston’s murders have resulted in an arrest. The rate is even lower since Coleman took the reins of the BPD homicide squad in 2003, and since O’Toole took office in February 2004.
So, it sure looks as though they’re not very good at their jobs, and probably should be replaced, along with many of those working for them.
Conley, O’Toole, and the gang, unsurprisingly, were looking for a somewhat different explanation.
As evidence of their efficacy, they also proudly presented the Suffolk County homicide-conviction rate for 2005. The 91 percent conviction rate is proof, they said, that thanks to recent investigative reforms they are now getting better-quality arrests, even if the quantity isn’t quite what it should be.
Sure, and it’s the motion of the ocean that counts. In any event, the numbers don’t actually say that. Fewer than half of the 60 murder convictions — 24 at trial, 36 through guilty pleas — came from investigations by the BPD, with the rest from state-police investigations in Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop. Of the Boston cases, the vast majority of the investigations and arrests predated Conley, let alone O’Toole. We have no idea of the quality of the homicide arrests of the past two years, because only one has been adjudicated: a five-year manslaughter plea for the killing of 16-year-old Bang Mai in June 2004.
Of the 18 Boston murder defendants who went to trial in 2005, the conviction rate was 72 percent — below even the inadequate average of the past several years; and the 11 additional convictions gained through plea-bargains were relative wrist-slaps, suggesting a lack of confidence in the cases. In fact, three of the 11 were plea-bargained to manslaughter after their trials for first-degree murder ended in hung juries. (These are Phoenix numbers; the DA’s office was given them a week in advance for verification but did not do so by press time.)