Christopher Dickson felt justice had been served. For weeks, he’d bragged around his neighborhood about winning $5,000 in a dispute settled on the TV show “Judge Joe Brown.”
On a cool evening in July 2009, the 39-year-old auto mechanic emerged with his nightly tallboy from Dailey’s Package Liquors, a shoebox-shaped shop that sits in a violent 12-block swath of North Omaha. Under the store’s dark-blue awning, a man with a gun demanded Dickson’s cash. As Dickson tried to flee, the gun went off.
Detectives canvassed the area — a mix of dilapidated duplexes, auto repair shops and corner liquors — for witnesses but never found enough evidence. Nine years later, no one has been arrested in Dickson’s slaying, one of thousands of homicides clustered in neighborhoods across the nation where killers are hardly ever brought to justice.
The Washington Post has identified the places in dozens of American cities where murder is common but arrests are rare. These pockets of impunity were identified by obtaining and analyzing up to a decade of homicide arrest data from 50 of the nation’s largest cities. The analysis of 52,000 criminal homicides goes beyond what is known nationally about the unsolved cases, revealing block by block where police fail to catch killers.
The overall homicide arrest rate in the 50 cities is 49 percent, but in these areas of impunity, police make arrests less than 33 percent of the time. Despite a nationwide drop in violence to historic lows, 34 of the 50 cities have a lower homicide arrest rate now than a decade ago.
Some cities, such as Baltimore and Chicago, solve so few homicides that vast areas stretching for miles experience hundreds of homicides with virtually no arrests. In other places, such as Atlanta, police manage to make arrests in a majority of homicides — even those that occur in the city’s most violent areas.
In Pittsburgh, a low-arrest zone occupies a run-down stretch of boarded-up buildings, two-story brick homes and vacant lots. In San Francisco, another one falls within a bustling immigrant neighborhood where day laborers and community college students crowd bus shelters and freeways snake overhead. In the District, yet another sits in the heart of Petworth, a gentrifying neighborhood crowded with construction cranes and the skeletons of future condos.
As part of an ongoing examination, The Washington Post has compiled and mapped up to a decade of homicide arrest data from 50 of America’s largest cities.
Explore the maps.
Police blame the failure to solve homicides in these places on insufficient resources and poor relationships with residents, especially in areas that grapple with drug and gang activity where potential witnesses fear retaliation. But families of those killed, and even some officers, say the fault rests with apathetic police departments. All agree that the unsolved killings perpetuate cycles of violence in low-arrest areas.
Detectives said they cannot solve homicides without community cooperation, which makes it almost impossible to close cases in areas where residents already distrust police. As a result, distrust deepens and killers remain on the street with no deterrent.
“If these cases go unsolved, it has the potential to send the message to our community that we don’t care,” said Oakland police Capt. Roland Holmgren, who leads the department’s criminal investigation division. That city has two zones where unsolved homicides are clustered.
Homicide arrest rates vary widely when examined by the race of the victim: An arrest was made in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, compared with 48 percent of killings of Latino victims and 46 percent of the killings of black victims. Almost all of the low-arrest zones are home primarily to low-income black residents.
The data, which The Post is making public, is more precise than the national homicide data published annually by the FBI. The federal data fails to distinguish whether a case was closed due to an arrest or other circumstances, such as the death of the suspect, and does not have enough detail to allow for the mapping of unsolved homicides.
In Omaha, police made an arrest in nearly 60 percent of homicides across the city. But the 12-block area where Dickson was killed saw an arrest in just 15 percent of its homicides.
“It’s one of the best indicators of how well a police department and a community work together,” said Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer. “If a police department can’t solve the greatest crime, the most egregious crime affecting society, what faith would you have in that police department?”
There are 17 cities where killings have spiked over the past decade but where police now make fewer arrests. One is Indianapolis, where only 64 of the 155 criminal homicides last year resulted in an arrest.
The city has four zones with a high concentration of unsolved killings.
Among them is Crown Hill, a neighborhood of primarily poor black residents living in modest single-family homes. In the past decade, there have been 40 killings but only 12 arrests.
In the absence of justice, community activists such as the Rev. Charles Harrison, 57, have taken it upon themselves to try to stop the killing.
Harrison runs a nonprofit group that has mobilized 50 people to embed themselves in Crown Hill and the other areas plagued by violence. He said the goal is to gather street knowledge — tips, gossip, relationships — that can help police solve killings and prevent future ones.
One recent morning, Harrison stood inside the foyer of his home, flipping through a leather-bound notebook. In it, he tracks the violence in Crown Hill and three other neighborhoods, recording how many days it has been since a young person was killed. Each morning, Harrison updates the numbers; his notebook’s pages now resemble the grid of a bingo card.
“I think families are frustrated because unless the case is solved very quickly, there doesn’t seem to be much communication after the initial homicide takes place,” Harrison said. “People have very little contact with the detective.”
In interviews, Indianapolis police officials blamed the low arrest rates in Crown Hill and elsewhere on frayed relationships with residents and on witnesses who are unwilling to cooperate.
“The lack of cooperation is what we battle the most,” Deputy Chief Chris Bailey said.
Retaliation is a real fear. Henry Nunn Sr., 63, was killed in 2015 after he testified in court about a shooting he witnessed. Police note that in December, a local gang posted a YouTube video titled “Ain’t no tellin,” filmed at a cemetery. In it, gang members act out a scene in which a young man is bound, doused in gasoline and set on fire — presumably for cooperating with police.
But police also acknowledge department shortcomings: In a city where 69 percent of those killed are black, 24 of 30 homicide detectives are white.
“I think there’s an expectation that their police department, or those public servants, look like a representative of the people that they serve,” Police Chief Bryan Roach said. “So right off the bat, we don’t look like the community that we serve in that area.”
Detective Marcus Kennedy, 58, who is retiring next year after more than three decades with the department, said he thinks cases go unsolved because some of his colleagues spend too much time at their desks instead of working the streets.
Kennedy, who is black, said his peers also have failed at times to treat people in the community with respect. “Some detectives, you know, not to call them out, but I mean they’ll piss people off real quick. Just with an attitude,” he said.
He recalled a killing several years ago in which some of his colleagues offended a homicide witness, a drug-addicted woman. Kennedy said he had to go to the crime scene and smooth things over with the woman and another person who was at the home.
“I kind of charmed them and then went back the next day, and she said, ‘Let me see your notebook pad,’ and she wrote down who did it,” Kennedy said.
Police made an arrest based on the information the woman provided, and she served as a witness at trial, in which the suspect was convicted. Kennedy bought the woman a $5 bottle of Night Train Express wine for her help.
In sprawling Los Angeles, police are proud of their homicide statistics over the past decade. The number of killings has dropped annually, and more than half of the 2,200 homicides since 2010 have led to an arrest, which is slightly better than average for cities surveyed. Yet the city has several pockets where unsolved homicide is a fact of life, The Post’s analysis shows.
In Pico-Union, a gentrifying Latino neighborhood, 19 killings have led to five arrests. Right across the 110 freeway in downtown Los Angeles, a much larger area, three-quarters of homicides this decade have been solved.
It’s been nearly seven years since 18-year-old Daniel Williams was shot in the head on Oct. 13, 2011, as he stood in front of a store on Pico Boulevard, one of Pico-Union’s main commercial drags.
His mother, Frances Williams, 45, drove the neighborhood searching for her son after getting a call about the shooting. By the time she found him, he was at a hospital, where he died a few days later.
Frances Williams said she thinks police have not prioritized the case because they are wrongly convinced her son was part of a gang.
“It’s like they didn’t care,” she said. “He was just another gang member taken off the street.”
A department spokesman denied Frances Williams’s claim and said police are “relentless” in their efforts to solve every homicide, including the killing of her son. He noted that when including cases closed for reasons other than arrest, Los Angeles police solved 73 percent of their homicides in 2017.
In the weeks after Williams’s death, police said they detained a suspect but released the man for lack of evidence. No one has since been arrested or charged in the killing.
In interviews, police said most of the killings in Pico-Union are linked to Latino gangs, primarily with roots in El Salvador. Many of the killings are drive-bys or walk-up shootings, and at times, the killers target the family members of rivals, stoking fear across the community, police said. This means witnesses are reluctant to cooperate and cases go unsolved.
“There are so many gangs in the city,” said Capt. Billy Hayes, commanding officer of the robbery-homicide division whose 36-year career with the department began on foot patrol in South Central. “And each one has its little nuances to whichever area it’s in.”
Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist who for two decades has studied homicide closure rates, said some types of homicide — gang violence, drive-by shootings, stranger-on-stranger killings — can be especially challenging to solve.
But with the right resources and a little luck, almost any homicide can lead to an arrest, Wellford said: “Almost all of the variation in clearance can be attributed to the way in which a department approaches clearing homicide.”
One key to cracking these cases, homicide investigators said, is cultivating suspects’ family members — particularly mothers or girlfriends — who may have information about a killing.
“Lots of the time I would try to get that girlfriend or that sister or that mother to trust me,” said John Skaggs, who retired from the Los Angeles Police Department last year after 24 years as a homicide detective. Skaggs, 53, had a reputation as one of the department’s best investigators and was the central figure in “Ghettoside,” a 2015 book that examined the failure to solve the killings of black homicide victims in Los Angeles.
Skaggs estimated that he solved nearly 90 percent of the 350 homicides he handled, primarily by pounding the pavement.
“There are a lot of detectives in this country that love sitting at their desk,” said Skaggs, who now travels the country training homicide detectives.
Omaha police said the July 2009 killing of Christopher Dickson outside the liquor store on the north side of the city officially remains under investigation. The reality, experts said, is that the longer a case lingers, the less likely it will ever be solved.
To Dickson’s family, the trail feels as though it has long since gone cold.
In the years since the shooting, Dickson’s widow — who believes he was targeted for robbery — has taken it upon herself to generate tips. She holds a block party each year, on the anniversary of the shooting, aimed at drumming up publicity. Family members heard a rumor that someone in prison had bragged about the killing. That rumor, they said, is all they’ve got.
“The investigation felt flat-footed, like the police never really went after it hard,” said Marshall Dickson, 73, Christopher’s father. While other family members have been in closer contact with detectives, he said he personally last heard from detectives two days after the funeral. “I guess there was just too much going on and we got put on the back burner.”
Omaha police officials declined to answer specific questions about Dickson’s killing or address rumors about a potential suspect. Schmaderer, the police chief, said that in most of their unsolved murders, police believe they know who committed the crime but lack the evidence to make an arrest.
Like their counterparts in other cities, police officials in Omaha said that homicide victims and perpetrators are often among the same pool of people.
“In many cases, these are not innocent victims,” said Thomas Warren, a former Omaha police chief who now runs the state’s Urban League chapter. “Unfortunately you’re not going to get a lot of cooperation if the victims themselves were involved in gang activity or drug distribution.”
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Gangs are a factor in the neighborhood where Dickson was killed, a heavily trafficked area that is home to several bars and a public housing complex. While police do not believe that Dickson’s killing involved drugs or gangs, most of the other 12 killings in the neighborhood since 2007 have some gang connection, according to Capt. Michele Bang, who oversees the department’s criminal investigations section.
“It’s a challenging area,” Bang said. “High-density housing, poverty, social dysfunction. And then you throw in gang involvement.”
Police have made arrests in just two of the 13 killings — both cases in which police benefited from a measure of luck.
On May 30, 2016, when officers found Angela Parks, 60, stabbed to death in her small home on Pinkney Street, the suspected killer, her 58-year-old roommate, Darlene Endsley, was still at the scene. Endsley was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for manslaughter.
The only other murder to result in an arrest in this part of North Omaha in the past decade was the slaying of Virgil Dunn on Dec. 10, 2013.
Just before 10 p.m., Dunn, 34, was leaving a liquor store when he was confronted by two men who robbed him of his wallet and a pack of cigarillos. When Dunn ran, one of the robbers shot him six times in the back. Near the shooting scene, police found a red baseball cap.
Two months later, during an unrelated traffic stop, Omaha police found a six-shot revolver beneath the passenger seat. Ballistic tests confirmed that it was the gun used to kill Dunn. And the passenger, Teon Hill, was linked via DNA to the baseball cap left at the scene. In 2016, Hill was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.
“You know, it does seem like they got kind of lucky,” said Troy Dunn, 52, the victim’s cousin. “Don’t know if they ever would have solved the case otherwise.”
Police officials acknowledge the challenges they face in some neighborhoods but said improving arrest rates has been a priority. In 2017, Omaha police made arrests in 69 percent of the city’s homicides, and officials said they are working to make arrests in unsolved cases from prior years.
They said they have renewed efforts to engage residents in parts of North Omaha where trust has historically been lacking and now hold weekly gatherings of police, public health officials, philanthropists and community leaders.
Still, residents noted that dozens of cases in North Omaha remain unsolved.
“Providing closure to the families could possibly reduce the violence,” said Akile Banister, a lifelong North Omaha resident who has launched a youth leadership academy in honor of Kentril Banister, his 20-year-old cousin who was shot and killed in the neighborhood on April 10, 2010.
It was the second time in three years that one of Banister’s cousins had been gunned down in North Omaha. No one has been arrested in connection with either killing.
In the case of Dickson’s homicide, his widow said she hasn’t given up hope.
Deborah Taylor said she no longer calls detectives each week, but she said she still plans to hold her yearly block party next month to generate tips.
“Unless it’s happened to you, everybody turns a blind eye,” Taylor said in a recent interview. “For some of us, this keeps happening right at our front door.”
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About this project
The Washington Post compiled up to a decade of homicide arrest data from 50 of America’s largest cities.
The Post mapped and analyzed the data to identify the homicides that most often led to an arrest and those that did not.
Homicide arrest rates were calculated by victim’s race, age, gender and location. The Post’s data, which provides a level of specificity lacking in the homicide data released annually by the FBI, is being released publicly and will be expanded over 2018.
To provide information about homicides in your area, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Base maps created using data from Maps4News/HERE and ESA Sentinel imagery.
Video reporting by Dalton Bennett.
Additional reporting by Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Kristian Hernandez, Matt Bernardini, Mitra Malek and Samuel Northrop.
COURTESY: US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT