As part of an exclusive, data-driven investigation, CBS4 News, in collaboration with the CBS News Investigative Unit and the local News Innovation Lab, is investigating a crime that often goes unpunished in our country.
Barely half of the murder cases in the United States are solved. According to FBI data, the national homicide rate is at an all-time low.
By the mid-1960s, more than 90 percent of murders were solved, usually resulting in an arrest. In 1990 the percentage decreased until the 1960s. As the homicide rate rose by 2020, the national cleanup rate dropped to about 50 percent for the first time.
And our analysis with CBS News also found a difference by race. The national homicide rate for white victims continues to improve. That’s the blue line at the top. While the rate of solving murders for black and Hispanic victims is much slower.
So we wanted to know what’s happening locally. Our research found that Denver’s cleanup rate is well above the national average and that of many other major cities. We also found that the Denver Police Department’s homicide rate wasn’t always that high. To understand what has changed, you have to go back 15 years to the gang-related murder of a Broncos soccer player.
Although it attracted national attention, what has never been reported until now is how that heinous crime led to sweeping changes that helped make DPD a national model.
On New Year’s Eve 2006, the Broncos season ended in a crushing overtime loss that eliminated them from the playoffs. Melancholy settled in Denver, but the worst was yet to come.
In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, Broncos Darrent Williams was murdered in a drive-by shooting.
The 24-year-old’s violent death shocked the sports world and became a turning point for the Denver Police Department.
An analysis by CBS News found that the department solved only 17% of the homicides in the city in 2006. Two years later, that number rose to 93%.
CBS News Colorado reporter Shaun Boyd this month asked former Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey what happened.
“Well, we’ve changed a lot of things,” he said.
The changes include setting up a witness protection program in the OM’s office and an undercover fugitive unit at DPD.
Williams’s killer was part of a street gang that terrified potential witnesses.
“The back of the Darrent Williams funeral home where they held the service had gang members wearing ‘Stop the Snitching’ T-shirts. … That makes for a tough environment to resolve cases,” said Steve Siegel, who headed the witness protection program.
“Little by little, they built a sense of trust that is then passed on word for word, word of mouth, family to family, neighbor to neighbor, so you can talk to these people. You can trust them.”
Confidence was boosted by a new cold case unit at DPD.
“The cases that remain unresolved? We are not giving up. We are not going to give up those cases. We are not going to turn the calendar around and move on to the next set of challenges,” said Denver Police Chief. Paul Easter.
Despite having 100 officers knocked out, the Denver Police Department today has three detectives working on cold cases. Pazen traces that dedication to a gathering he attended many years ago, where families of murder victims and missing persons took turns telling their stories.
“You could still see the pain and the pain in the unresolved cases. And it was just one of those moments that I’ve never forgotten and I’ve never forgotten,” Pazen said. “It reinforced what our detectives do every day: that we have to solve these cases.
The dedication is not lost on families, many of whom send cards and letters that detectives like Adam Golden keep at their desks, along with photos of victims and funeral announcements. He said it’s a good reminder of why the detective’s work is so important.
“This is one from a mother of a murder victim,” Golden said, showing a card he’d been given that gave him an amazing boost. “She sent me this card about the worst day of her life and how hard it must be for me.”
“It’s more than a job. It’s something we live and we breathe. We take it home,” he said.
Commander Matt Clark oversees Denver’s homicide and cold case units and told CBS News Colorado that they invest heavily in their investigators.
“It’s sometimes hard to let them go home, after ‘Hey, you’ve been here 24 hours, you need to go offline,'” Clark said.
Clark says the extensive training that members of his team receive includes things like “open source intelligence.”
Despite all the success of DPD, there are still about 775 murders that date back to the 1960s and remain unsolved in the city. Still, the Executive Director for Families of Murder Victims and Missing Persons says he has worked with police forces across the country and that Denver, he says, is a leader.
Chief Pazen says there have been a few trends in homicides over the past year. He says that at the time of the murder 35%, more than a third, of the suspects had been paroled, paroled or remanded in custody, and that 88 percent of the victims were people of color.
“We work with social media platforms. We shoot reconstruction schools, murder schools.”
They also work closely with the federal police.
“I have an ATF agent in the Homicide Division. He is sitting at a desk in the ward. And the resources he can bring us are considerable.
The year after Williams’ murder, Denver voters also approved a $28 million state-of-the-art crime lab.
“I saw DNA (work) that in some cases was done within 24 hours if the chief asked,” Morrissey said. “So they were able to deliver on that, and you don’t see that anywhere in the country.”
Denver’s approach to solving murders has caught the attention of the National Institute of Justice.
“They called what we had the collaboration triangle. It was the detectives, the Public Prosecution Service and the crime lab.’
The homicide rate in the city is the highest in more than 30 years with an average of 2 deaths per week. Clark says they’ve solved about 70% of those murders this year and last year, but he’s focusing on the unsolved ones.
“I recognize that 25% of our cases are not (resolved) there are 10 families waiting for that closure.”
Three years after his death, Williams’ family was closed for good. His killer was given a life sentence.
“Sometimes it’s luck. But often luck comes when you build the right teams, when you have the protocols. And we’ve all done that,” Morrissey said.
“I hope it passes on to the perpetrators that the Denver Police Department is still looking for the perpetrators. That we are after you and that you don’t get away with murder,” Clark said.
Despite DPD’s success, the ministry says there are still about 775 murders, dating back to the 1960s, that remain unsolved in the city. Chief Pazen says they will never give up on catching the killers.
“You help families and loved ones of murder victims and I can’t think of a more important work than that.”
Full coverage of “Crime Without Punishment” from our CBS stations nationwide and CBS News is available here.