When it comes to solving a murder - the pressure is on in the first 48 hours. “If you haven’t been able to develop a suspect, it’s going to be a difficult case to prove,” Portland Assistant Police Chief Vern Malloch explained. “We certainly see that on a regular basis.”
This is a critical time not just for victims’ families, but for communities. Cities that solve crimes are safer.
Malloch told us he didn’t feel comfortable commenting on the drastic difference between Bangor and Portland's clearance rates without knowing specifics. “I think you would have to do a lot more research into the individual cases to see what exactly they are,” he told us as the cameras were rolling.
He did offer one possible challenge of the Portland Police Department: the state’s drug problem. “I can say that one of the difficulties that we have is when cases are drug related, they are a lot more difficult to solve," he said. “But not knowing what the bigger cases look like, I really couldn’t comment.”
Fair point. So we went back to the drawing board and broke down the numbers.
A drug problem? Breaking down the data
In the 10-year period on which our investigation zooms in, Bangor had 18 homicide cases. Portland had 26.
Here's how the cases break down:
For each department, drug-related homicides make up around 11 percent of cases.
We brought our detailed information about each case back to the assistant chief two weeks later. We handed him a list with a breakdown of each specific case.
He still wouldn’t talk specifics of a potential Portland Police problem.
“I can’t speak to that except to say that I have no information at all about the Bangor cases,” he told us as the list sat on the table in front of him. “I’m not going to say why Bangor solved 100% of their crimes,” he said defensively. “I can tell you that there was a ten-year period where Portland had a 100% clearance rate in homicides as well.”
He’s right – from 1998 to 2008, Portland solved all its homicides. In the 10 years since, 11 homicides – nearly half – have gone unsolved.
In our first interview, Malloch told us homicides are the most serious crimes Portland PD investigates saying the department puts “all of [its] resources behind investigating [homicides].”
Again, we crunched the numbers.
Portland’s population is twice the size of Bangor’s. Its police force has more than 140 officers, while Bangor’s has 76. Both departments have a 12-detective unit that investigates homicides.
We told Assistant Chief Malloch this breakdown when we visited him again two weeks later. “I don’t feel that having a pool of 12 detectives that could potentially investigate what averages out to be two homicides a year is inadequate,” he responded. “So I’m very comfortable with the staffing levels that we have.”
Chiming for Change
In our first conversation, Malloch said more communication with the public could help close these cold cases. He told us that our interview and questions prompted the department to “look at [its] website and say, ‘Why do we wait two years to put [an unsolved case] on the website? Why not six months?” Assistant Chief Malloch said, “I think [the department is] ready to change that now and perhaps go with six months.”
When we came back with more questions two weeks later, he walked it back. “Two years seems to be an average the departments look at,” he said. He told us the department has had no further discussions on the issue.
Malloch says he doesn’t see a need for change in the department.
“We are looking to improve, but at this point there isn’t any glaring shortfall that we need to address,” he said.
A clearance rate below the state and national average – but no “glaring shortfall.”
For victims’ loved ones, it’s not about numbers. It’s about knowing – who, and why.
Malloch says it’s up to witnesses to come forward to help solve these murders.
“I don’t know what will do differently right now,” Malloch said. “I feel like we are putting 100% of our resources behind [solving these crimes].”
Why do this story?
I originally requested details on the state’s homicide cases on a hunch. I noticed that in the few years I’ve been reporting in Maine, no arrests had been made in the Portland homicides I had covered or followed closely.
I wanted to see if this was indicative of a bigger trend. As our data reveals – it is. The Portland Police Department has solved just more than half its murders since 2007. There are questions unanswered, families hurting, and victims without justice. -Kristina Rex