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How Sacramento County is bucking the national trend of murder cases going unsolved

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — In a collaboration with CBS News, CBS Sacramento is examining why crime is often going without punishment in our country. The national homicide clearance rate is at an all-time low, according to FBI data. Barely half of the murder cases in the United States get solved.

In the mid-1960s, more than 90 percent of murders were solved, generally resulting in an arrest. By 1990, the percentage fell into the sixties.

And our analysis with CBS News also discovered a difference by race.  The national homicide clearance rate for White victims keeps improving while the rate of solving murders for Black and Hispanic victims is much lower.

But Sacramento County is bucking the trend.

Instead of making arrests in five out of 10 murders, which was roughly the national average in 2020, the Sacramento sheriff's department made arrests in more than 7 out of 10 murders. That arrest rate has increased to eight out of 10 homicide cases so far this year.

What can other agencies learn from Sacramento County?

CBS13 got an inside look at the real-life CSI tools and techniques that set Sacramento apart.

"You can't unsee this, this is as bad as it gets."

That was the reaction from law enforcement when they announced the arrest of a suspect in the Emma Roark murder.

It was a brutal crime that rocked the region. Twenty-year-old Emma Roark went out for a walk on the America River Trail and never came home.

The young woman with special needs was found tied up, raped, and murdered. The suspect? A transient man who detectives were able to identify, locate and arrest in a matter of days -- despite the fact that he had no known address.

His was one of 19 homicide arrests out of 22 murders in Sacramento County so far this year, where the sheriff's department makes arrests in the majority of homicide cases each year.

That is a stark contrast to the national average, where FBI data reveals homicide arrests plummeted to just over 50 percent in 2020: a 50-year low.

"Well, it's not an accident and it's not luck," said Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.

Jones explains that much of their success is due to staffing. They have three dedicated homicide teams, each with five experienced investigators rotating through 10-day shifts to avoid burnout.

"We have some stuff that is certainly best practices, but we also have some cutting-edge stuff that is well, frankly, we were the first agency in the country to use some of this stuff," Jones said.

He notes they were the first local law enforcement team to use a crimefighting database, Palantir, for street-level crimes. It was initially used by the FBI and CIA to track terrorists.

Jones says his department was also the first agency to create a video surveillance registry where citizens could register their home cameras to be used in investigations. It's a program that initially faced criticism from privacy advocates.

And Jones credits a combination of license plate readers (LPR) and ShotSpotter technology for enabling them to identify suspects and witnesses even when shootings aren't reported.

"What we found when we got ShotSpotter was that a lot of gunshots went unreported, which was shocking to us," Jones said.

He says Crime Stoppers is another valuable tool. The tip line based in Canada ensures tips stay anonymous and can't even be subpoenaed by US courts.

Lt. Gurdelstone, who oversees centralized investigations, credits a mixture of modern technology and old-school police work for their high homicide arrest rate.

"What you get in the first 24 to 72 hours is pretty much what you'll get. And being proactive instead of reactive on these cases is kind of paramount for homicide investigations," Gurdelstone said.

Once they've collected the evidence, forensics is key.

They use tools like the IBIS ballistics identification system, which can trace a shell casing back to a gun used in previous crimes.

The sheriff's department also works closely with the Sacramento District Attorney's office, which pioneered the genetic genealogy crime technology famously used to solve the East Area Rapist/Golden State Killer case.

"We can get a rush on and have that information back by the next morning," Gurdelstone said.

He notes quick DNA was crucial in the Emma Roark case. They got a match on the suspect from a previous arrest.

The sheriff's department says they also relied on surveillance cameras, cell phone data, and old-fashioned detective work to identify and track down the transient suspect and make an arrest.

"The manpower on that team (was) 24/7, (they) pushed everything they had to that family," Gurdelstone said.

And while Emma's parents declined an interview, her father credited the team in a statement:

"We are most grateful for the thorough investigation of Emma's death. The homicide detectives in the case showed Emma's mother and me a great deal of compassion as well."

Now, there are some limitations. Sacramento County has one of the largest agencies in the country, but smaller agencies may not have the staffing or resources to fund some of these tools.

Jones suggests they consider partnering with larger agencies or the FBI to gain access for free.

Complete coverage of "Crime Without Punishment" from our CBS stations across the country and CBS News is available here

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