Waiting for justice: Cleveland police struggle to solve murder cases

A Mother’s Grief

“I thought he was going to live,” said Regina Hannett. 

“I don’t want anyone to feel that pain that I felt ever again."

Her youngest son, Reginald Johnson, 16, survived seventeen days on life support after he was shot during a fight at Collinwood High School in December 2013.

“He had gotten better,” she said, but the bullet that tore through the flesh under his arm proved fatal. “I felt like everything inside of my stomach was just taken out. I actually dropped on the floor."

Three years and five months after the child she called her “Care Bear” died, she remains “tormented” by his death.

“I miss just seeing his smile. I miss just seeing his face. I miss everything,” said Hannett.

It’s not the only thing causing her sleepless nights. 

Her son’s case remains unsolved. His killer walks free.

“It’s tormenting,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to feel that pain that I felt ever again."

Cleveland’s Clearance Rates

Hannett’s story is all too common in the City of Cleveland.

Our exclusive On Your Side Investigation found the percentage of murder cases Cleveland reported as solved to the FBI falls far short of the national average.

For years, FBI reports have shown what’s known as the murder clearance rates is approximately 60 percent, which means the nation’s police department only solve about two-thirds of murders reported to the federal agency each year.

It was just as likely a killer would walk free as get caught.

During the last three years, Cleveland’s rate was even worse.

It was just as likely a killer would walk free as get caught.

In 2013, the city reported a clearance rate of 22.4 percent. In 2014, it was 38.1 percent. In 2015, it was 47.4 percent. 

The FBI has yet to release numbers for 2016.

A Systemic Problem

“It’s a systemic problem,” said Dr. Jim Taylor, an author, criminologist, and professor who has studied social problems and deviant behavior for decades.

“It means that you’re failing in a lot of different areas related to crime,” he said. “It definitely means that your outreach efforts could be better and the reason I’ve gone back to that, a couple of times, is because those are things that do work."

“It means that you’re failing in a lot of different areas related to crime."

For example, Taylor said police officers in Richmond, Virginia were struggling to solve murders in the late 1990’s. 

However, after officers began reaching out and developing strong relationships with religious and community organizations, things changed. 

“They got their clearance rates up to very respectable levels, much better than the national average,” he said.

In 2014, Richmond reported solving 77 percent of the 43 murders it reported to the FBI. 

Successes & Struggles

On Your Side Investigators found larger cities whose departments deal with higher number of homicides have also found ways to exceed the national clearance rate.

In 2015, Atlanta, New York, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Washington D.C. all cleared more than sixty percent of the murder they reported to the FBI.  

However, like Cleveland, other cities are struggling to solve homicides. 

Baltimore and Detroit both reported solving less than one-third of murders in 2015.

Deep Distrust

In Cleveland, it is no secret there is often deep distrust between community members and police.

Among other events, a 2012 high-speed chase and shootout that ended with two unarmed people dead and the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014 intensified the already-strained relationship between officers and residents. 

A 2014 Department of Justice investigation — which slammed officers’ use of excessive force — was also critical of the department’s relationship with the community it serves. 

Federal investigators concluded the “level of distrust between police and the community interferes with CDP’s ability . . . to effectively fight crime.” 

Well-placed sources told On Your Side Investigators troubled community-police relations are not the only problem.

They blamed staffing levels inside the homicide unit, calling detectives’ caseloads “unmanageable.”

 

According to CDP spokesperson Jennifer Ciaccia, 16 officers are assigned to the department’s homicide unit — just one percent of the department’s total personnel of 1477 officers.

However, On Your Side Investigators checked with several police departments in similar-sized cities, including Oakland, California and Omaha Nebraska, and found their homicide units were no larger.  

How Cleveland's 2015 rate compares to other similar-sized cities:

Arlington - 100

Omaha - 79.17

Wichita - 74.07

Honolulu - 66.67

Bakersfield - 63.64

Tulsa - 56.36

Minneapolis - 51.06

Cleveland - 47.44

Tampa - 41.18

New Orleans - 36.59

Still Walking Free

In Cleveland, we also found intense interest by police and the public doesn’t necessarily mean a killer will be captured.

“As time goes on, it’s just agony,” said Jan Lash. 

Her best friend, Aliza Sherman, was stabbed eleven times outside her divorce attorney’s downtown Cleveland office March 24, 2013. 

Sherman’s murder remains unsolved. 

Aliza Sherman and her daughter Jennifer

“The person who did this is still walking free, walking around living their life,” said Lash. “I have a lot of very good friends. But this is a terrible hole in my heart.”

CDP recently announced an increase in the $25,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.

“I sometimes want to go outside and scream because it’s so frustrating,” said Lash. “I know they tell us they’re doing the best they can and I have to trust that and I have to believe that and have hope because I have nothing else. If I could solve it, I would.”

The Numbers Game

On Your Side Investigators made several requests for an on-camera interview with CDP, but Ciaccia declined.

The City of Cleveland did provide News 5 its own numbers related to homicide clearance rates, which are inconsistent with what the city reported to the FBI.

According a public records request, the city’s homicide clearance rates are as follows: 

  • 2012 - 71 percent
  • 2013 - 56 percent
  • 2014 - 51 percent
  • 2015 - 56 percent
  • 2016 - 52 percent
  • 2017 - 63 percent (Year-to-Date)

CPD did not give On Your Side investigators a full explanation related to why the numbers CDP provided to On Your Side Investigators differed from the numbers Cleveland reported to the FBI.