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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -
Unless more people who witness shootings in Kansas City come forward with information, local police officials said they will continue having a difficult time raising the city's homicide clearance rate much higher than 50 percent.
In 2013, 58 of the city's 106 killings were solved and charges were filed in 36 of them. The 55 percent clearance rate is slightly higher than the 52 percent solved in 2012 but far lower than the occasional 80 percent or higher rates in the 1990s, The Kansas City Star reported.
Reluctant witnesses and suspects who are tougher to break under interrogation figure greatly in the police department's inability to resolve dozens of homicides each year. Blurred lines between self-defense and murder also occasionally contribute to the inability of investigators to pursue criminal charges.
"Usually we have a pretty good idea (who the killer is) pretty quick," said Kansas City homicide Detective Mark Slater.
Witnesses often help in the initial stages of an investigation by sharing information — including names of suspects — by attributing it to what they have heard on the "streets." But when detectives press them for the original source of the information, or try to get them to go on the record, witnesses often clam up or don't have enough specifics for a conviction.
"We don't have the people we need to come forward," Slater said. "When it comes time to prosecute the case, street talk is nothing."
In the past decade, Kansas City has ended each year with an average of 48 unsolved homicides. In the prior decade, that number averaged 35.
The lifestyles of many homicide victims are not distinguishable from those of their killers in recent decades, experts said, a trend both locally and nationally that has made cracking cases more difficult.
Also, homicide cases solved through self-defense claims have increased since Missouri enacted a law known as the castle doctrine in 2007. That law allows residents to kill anyone unlawfully entering a house or car or committing a forcible felony, such as kidnapping.
Some cases appear clear-cut, including that of a 68-year-old woman who fatally shot a 24-year-old intruder who had sexually assaulted her. There also were two instances in which men killed to protect women who were being assaulted.
But other cases have a lot of gray area, including that of a 21-year-old who reportedly was carrying a gun when he was shot to death during an argument over gas money. The shooter fled and never admitted shooting anyone.
Though prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to prove the shooter's identity, but not enough to prove he didn't fire his gun in self-defense.
The national clearance rate has been dropping in recent decades, mainly because of changes in killings, experts said. Those changes include fewer domestic violence deaths and more killings involving people engaged in risky behavior.
Although police were able to solve more than 80 percent of killings in some years during the mid-1990s, they've solved an average of 57 percent over the past decade. Kansas City's lowest clearance rate in recent history was 42 percent in 2010.
Some witnesses are afraid to cooperate, police said. Police Chief Darryl Forte said that's why he wants his officers to focus on building trust and developing community relationships.
Homicide Sgt. Mark Cobbinah credits the community with solving Kansas City cases.
"We rise or fall with their help," he said. "When we're solving a lot of cases, it's because we're getting a lot of help from the community."
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