Carmen Robinson should be 56, a greying boomer, perhaps an early retiree discovering the joy of life untethered from the daily grind. Time to sip mid morning lattes. Time to lounge with a favourite book. Time for family. Instead, Carmen (inset) is a smiling snapshot, a memory, a life with no conclusion. She also is a statistic, one of thousands of unsolved murders that have been accumulating in Canada in the past half century. Carmen was just 17 when she stepped off a bus a few blocks from her home in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 8, 1973. She vanished and was, it is presumed, murdered. Her body has not been found and her killer remains unknown.
Carmen’s is a very cold case. Investigators have made valiant efforts to rekindle it over the years, with limited success. Memories have faded, witnesses have died or disappeared. This is the fate of a growing number of murders each year in Canada, a fact illuminated this week with the release of the annual homicide survey, published by the Canadian Centre of Justice Statistics, part of Statistics Canada. The survey provides a detailed analysis of every murder reported to police.
This latest edition of the annual report shows a 7% year-over-year increase in the murder rate. This statistic dominated headlines in news coverage of the report, although this small statistical shift is virtually meaningless. The truly troubling figures – numbers that remind us of Carmen – were virtually ignored.
The homicide survey reveals that the rate at which Canadian police solve murders remains at a historically low level, consistent with an unabated five-decade decline. One in every four murders reported to police in 2011 was unsolved. The solve, or clearance rate, for murders is at 76%. That’s 143 unsolved murders among the 598 reported to police. The rate of decline in the murder-solving record of law enforcement has been steepest in the past three decades.
In the past 50 years, the rate at which Canadians murder one another has declined substantially. The strength of police departments across the country has surged, and yet, the rate at which police solve murders has hit historically low levels and is continuing a gradual decline. The current solve rate, 76%, is a dramatic decline from levels in the early to mid 1960s, when the solve rate was 90 to 95%.
No one seems able to say with certainty why Canadian police are solving so many fewer murders, although there are plenty of theories. There’s very little real research on the issue, although this report highlights a number of factors: the relationship between victim and killer, the social situation in which the killing happens, the method of murder and geography. This report, and even Statistics Canada suggest that gang-related killings are proving difficult to solve.
There’s very little hope that old cold cases will be solved, despite the use of cold case squads by police departments. A detailed review of unsolved homicides by Statistics Canada in 2006 showed that most murders that are solved, 95%, are solved in the first year after the killing. After that, the chances that a murder will be solved are very, very low. Perhaps this could be improved, if departments poured considerably more resources into cold case investigation. In most police jurisdictions, it is a low to non-existent priority.
Until it is a priority, there will be many more Carmens.