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Department of Law and Justice, Central Washington

Homicide Studies
14(4) 436–452
© 2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1088767910381864
HSX38186 4 HSX14410.1177/1088767910381864Reasons et al.Homicide Studies
© 2010 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
Central Washington University, Ellensburg
Washington State University, Pullman
Corresponding Author:
Charles E. Reasons, Department of Law and Justice, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA
98926-7580 [email protected]
The Ideology of
Homicide Detectives:
A Cross-National Study
Charles E. Reasons1
, Teresa Francis1
and David Kim2
Ideologies help guide our behavior and thought processes and have been largely
neglected when studying crime and criminal justice professionals. Intensive interviews
were conducted with homicide detectives in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver,
British Columbia to provide a view of their working beliefs and opinions concerning a
number of issues. The areas questioned included (a) working environment, (b) causes
of homicide, (c) television portrayal of homicide work, and (d) the death penalty.
Within each area several questions were asked. Although homicide detectives in
both cities and countries gave similar responses to many questions, they differed
significantly in terms of the role of guns, particularly handguns, in homicide rates, the
death penalty, and their relationship to the prosecutor/crown. Therefore, although
their constellation of beliefs (ideologies) surrounding the above noted topics were
in many ways similar, there were distinct differences. The areas of difference can be
understood within the larger legal and cultural context.
comparative homicide, ideology, homicide detectives, causes of homicide, police work
An ideology is an organized collection of ideas. All societies have an ideology that is
the basis of “common sense” or “public opinion.” It often appears neutral. A “natural”
given set of assumptions not often challenged. For example, the notions that the United
Reasons et al. 437
States is the best country in the world; democracy as we practice it is the best form of
government; government control of the economy is bad; what ever is good for the private sector is good for all. Although we are all socialized with an ideology, those who
conduct the study of crime often eschew the term ideology and ignore its role in the
study of crime. The criminologist is often viewed as insulated from ideology because of
his or her methodological strictures.
In his classic work Ideology and Crime, Sir Leon Radzinowicz (1966) details
how explanations of crime have changed with changes in society over many centuries. Although most criminology and criminal justice texts outline the changes in
ways of explaining crime from demological to classical neoclassical, positivist
and critical explanations, the role of ideology is largely ignored. Explanations of
crime are presented as a linear, cumulative progression in our understanding of
crime. If one looks at current textbooks, rarely is there a notation for ideology in the
index. This omission is due in part to the largely “normal science” of criminology
and its emersion in positivism and scientism. A cursory review of major criminology and criminal justice journals provides evidence for this dominance of scientism
and positivism.
In the “Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists,” sociologist C.W. Mills
(1943) observed that social scientists and academics share collective ideas and
“ways of thinking” (ideologies) in the study of crime and deviance related to their
backgrounds and biases. More recently Kelleher (2001) provides an update to Mills’
argument by arguing that contemporary students of social problems have a liberal
bias in their work. In the “Sociology of Nuts, Sluts, and Perverts,” Liazos (1972)
discusses this in terms of the focus of criminological study. In the Social Reality of
Crime, Quinney (1970) provided a break with the positivist tradition in emphasizing
how both law and crime are socially created and pursued based on factors of race,
class, and other biases.
Although we all have ideologies, lay people and social scientists, most research by
criminologists on ideologies and beliefs has been on the offenders and/or employees of
the criminal justice system. In a significant, but now largely ignored, article “Ideology
and Criminal Justice Policy,” Walter B. Miller (1973) provides an excellent starting
point for addressing the role ideology plays in the criminal justice system. He identifies ideological positions on the left and right and summarizes crusading issues and
general assumptions. These are presented generally, and then he discusses four professional groups. (a) Academic Criminologists (b) Judiciary and Courts (c) the Police,
and (d) Corrections in terms of the left/right positions. He concludes,
If, as it is here contended, many of those involved in the tasks of planning and
executing the major policies and procedures of our criminal justice system are
subject to the influence of pervasive ideological assumptions which are largely
implicit and unexamined, the question than arises What are the consequences of
this phenomenon? (Miller, 1973, p. 150)
438 Homicide Studies 14(4)
Police Ideology
In discussing the ideology of the police, Miller (1973) notes that most have “working
class backgrounds” and most fit into the “right” classification ideologically although
there are variations in region of the country, size of department, age, and rank differences. This is largely confirmed in the classic research on the “working personality”
of the police decades ago. However, Walker and Katz observe in their more recent text
Police in America (2008), the attitudes and culture of police are more complex today
given the dramatic changes in the rank and file over recent decades (Women, African
Americans, Hispanics, gay and lesbian officers, higher education level). Nonetheless,
there are “ways of thinking” among police today.
Little research has been conducted on detectives, generally, and less on homicide
detectives. Walker and Katz (2008) point out that detective work is surrounded by
myths largely because of movies and television police shows. Some of these myths are
that detective work is exciting, glamorous, and dangerous; detectives possess exceptional courage and skills and solve all crime. Although these myths are empirically
unsubstantiated, they produce harmful consequences, such as unrealistic expectations
from victims and the public, and thus frustration and dissatisfaction.
The most extensive and comprehensive research on detective work was completed
by Canadian criminologist Richard Erickson (1981), who wrote a book entitled Making
Crime: A Study of Detective Work. He studied detectives in Toronto, Ontario. Through
interviews, observations, and related analysis, Erickson provides a rich elaboration of
detective work in the context of organization, occupational environment, modus operandi, and ideology.
In the ranking of detective work, homicide detective work traditionally occupies the
highest status, followed by robbery and sexual assault detectives. This is because of the
fact that more serious crimes carry more social and moral significance. Therefore, more
resources are given to these types of crimes. As noted in the early book Detective Work:
A Study of Criminal Investigation (Sanders, 1977), homicide units generally have the
smallest workload and the highest clearance rate. At the other end of the detective
spectrum, property crime units (burglary and larceny) have the highest workloads and
lowest clearance rates.
During the 2005-2006 academic year, the researcher visited both the Seattle and
Vancouver Police Departments numerous times, meeting with the respective homicide units. Both the Seattle and Vancouver homicide units have 18 officers. The
Seattle homicide unit consisted of three squads of six officers. Each squad has a
Sgt. and five detectives. The five detectives consist of two pairs who work together
plus a 5th wheel who investigates felony assaults and is periodically called to help
with a homicide. The Vancouver Homicide Squad is composed of two teams of
Reasons et al. 439
eight detectives each, with a Sgt. leading each team. As in Seattle, the officers work
in two person units.
In the Summer of 2005, prior to the extensive field work, a homicide interview
schedule was constructed based on previous research and the current researcher’s
interests. It included demographic information, opinions regarding homicide work,
views of the factors related to homicide, and opinions on the death penalty, among
other issues. From September through December 2005, interviews were conducted
with detectives in both Homicide Units. In Seattle, 16 of the 18 homicide officers were
interviewed, while in Vancouver, 14 were interviewed, for a total of 30 interviews of
homicide officers.
The interviews were conducted individually with each detective in a separate room
in the homicide unit. Each interview took approximately 1.5 hr although they varied
from 1 to 2 hr. The officers were assured anonymity and that identifying information
would be removed before data were distributed to others. On completion of the 30
interviews, a coding form was devised to provide more uniform data. The interviews
were coded and provided the following results.
Detective Characteristics
The first general category of responses concerned the officer’s experience and characteristics. All detectives, except one in the Seattle unit, have at least 11 or more years of
police experience. In terms of time in the homicide unit, it is evident from Table 1 that
most detectives in both departments have 3 years or less experience, while the Seattle
homicide unit has a much larger number with 9 or more years. In terms of formal education, Seattle homicide detectives are much more likely to have a college/university
degree (75%) than Vancouver detectives (46%). Regarding their prior police experience,
homicide detectives disproportionately have been detectives in robbery or sex crime
units prior to homicide.
Working Environment
The next set of questions dealt with aspects of the job of the homicide detectives.
When asked why they applied to be homicide detectives, Table 2 shows that they realized it was the top of the heap in terms of detective investigation work. Seattle detectives
also emphasized that it was interesting and challenging, while Vancouver detectives
stressed they always wanted to go into it and there are more resources.
Table 3 provides their opinions on the best aspects of being a homicide detective.
In terms of the best aspects of the job, using one’s brain, and the challenge and excitement, were noted by half in both departments’ homicide units. Working through the
entire case and having the best resources and personnel were mentioned by at least a
40% average for both departments, while locking up bad guys was mentioned by about
440 Homicide Studies 14(4)
one fourth of detectives. There appears to be more satisfaction in the Seattle unit with
resources and overtime pay, compared to the Vancouver unit.
Regarding the worst aspects of the job, the Seattle unit noted the hours/pagers going
off in the middle of the night as the worst thing, while the Vancouver unit’s most frequent complaint is case failures due to “technicalities.” According to Table 4, another
noticeable difference is Seattle detectives were more likely to cite child victims as a
worst aspect of work, while Vancouver detectives noted strong personalities/egos.
When asked what are the most important skills for a homicide detective, both units
listed people skills as the top one, as shown in Table 5. Being organized and interviewing skills were next although these were noted more frequently by Seattle detectives. The next question dealt with the degree of dangerousness of being a homicide
Table 1. Detective Characteristics
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Years in the department
0-10 Years 1-6% 0-0% 1-3%
11+ Years 15-94% 14-100% 29-97%
Years in homicide
0-3 Years 7-44% 7-50% 14-47%
4-8 Years 4-25% 6-43% 10-33%
9+ Years 5-31% 1-7% 6-20%
High School 0-0% 3-23% 3-10%
Some College/university 4-25% 5-31% 9-30%
Complete College/university 12-75% 6-46% 18-62%
Previous positions
Patrol 16-100% 14-100% 30-100%
Robbery 5-31% 6-43% 11-37%
Sex crimes 3-19% 7-50% 10-33%
Strike force 0-0% 6-11% 6-20%
Table 2. Why Go Into Homicide?a
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Top of heap/peak of investigation 8-50% 6-43% 14-47%
Interesting/challenge 9-56% 3-21% 12-40%
Always wanted to 4-25% 7-50% 11-37%
More resources 1-6% 4-29% 5-17%
Other 7-44% 2-14% 9-30%
a. Many respondents gave more than one answer.
Reasons et al. 441
detective. As Table 6 shows, it is the least dangerous job in policing, while patrol is the
most dangerous according to homicide detectives.
The next question dealing with working conditions concerned the relationship with
the prosecutor/crown. This aspect of detective work is often overlooked by researchers,
Table 3. Best Part of Working Homicidea
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Use Brain/exciting/challenging 9-56% 7-50% 16-53%
Work through entire case 6-38% 8-57% 14-47%
Best people and resources 7-44% 5-36% 12-40%
Jail bad guys 4-25% 3-21% 7-23%
Freedom/leadership 3-19% 3-21% 6-20%
Overtime pay 3-19% 0-0% 3-10%
Other 3-19% 4-29% 7-23%
a. Many respondents gave more than one answer.
Table 4. Worst Part of Working Homicide
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Hours/pagers 9-56% 3-21% 12-40%
Case fails because of “technicalities” 4-25% 5-36% 9-30%
Child victims 4-25% 1-7% 5-17%
Strong personalities/ego 0-0% 3-21% 3-10%
No lab 0-0% 1-7% 1-3%
Other 4-25% 7-50% 11-37%
Table 5. Most Important Skills as a Homicide Detectivea
Seattle Vancouver Combined
People skills 8-50% 5-36% 13-43%
Organized 5-31% 3-21% 8-27%
Interviewing skills 6-38% 2-14% 8-27%
Detail skills 3-19% 1-7% 4-13%
Patience 2-13% 2-14% 4-13%
Writing skills 1-6% 2-14% 3-10%
Tenacity 0-0% 2-14% 2-7%
Flexibility 0-0% 2-14% 2-7%
Other 8-50% 6-43% 14-47%
a. Many respondents gave multiple answers.
442 Homicide Studies 14(4)
Table 6. Dangerousness
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Patrol most dangerous 13-81% 9-64% 22-73%
Homicide least dangerous of police work 9-56% 10-71% 19-63%
Strike force/ERT most dangerous 0-0% 2-14% 2-7%
Other 4-25% 0-0% 4-13%
Table 7. Relationship With Prosecutor/Crown
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Good 13-81% 6-46% 19-65%
Not so good 1-6% 5-38% 6-21%
Bad 2-13% 3-15% 5-14%
Table 8. The Clearance Rate for Homicide Has Decreased Over the Last Several Decades,
How Would You Explain That?a
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Legal rules/courts/technicalities 1-6% 12-86% 13-43%
More organized/gang homicides 7-44% 5-36% 12-40%
Stranger homicides 5-31% 0-0% 5-17%
Other 5-31% 5-36% 10-33%
a. Respondents gave multiple answers.
but is a significant part of their job. As observed in Table 7, the most frequent response
in both units was a good relationship; however, such a response was noted by significantly more Seattle homicide detectives.
Finally, research has indicated a decline in the clearance rate of homicide over the
last several decades in Canada and the United States. Homicide detectives were asked
how they would explain this decline. Nearly all of the Vancouver detectives identified
legal rules/courts/technicalities, whereas only one Seattle detective provided this
explanation in Table 8. The major factors identified by Seattle detectives were more
organized/gang homicides and stranger homicide. Vancouver detectives also noted
organized/gang homicides but not stranger homicides.
Factors/Causes of Homicide
The next series of questions dealt with the detectives’ opinions concerning the types of
factors that produce homicide. It is basically their views of the “etiology” of homicide.
Reasons et al. 443
The first question was a general one, “Why do you think people kill each other?” As
evident from Table 9, the largest response was emotional/anger/situational, followed by
premeditated/planned/gang, and drugs/money. Next the homicide detectives were
asked if a number of factors were related to homicide. In Table 10, the responses are
noted by the respective factors. Over three quarters of detectives (80%). identified
inequality/poverty as a factor.
Table 10. Factors Related to Homicide
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Yes 13-81% 11-79% 24-80%
No 3-19% 3-21% 6-20%
Mental illness
Yes 12-75% 8-57% 20-67%
No 4-25% 6-43% 10-33%
Yes 14-88% 12-86% 26-87%
No 2-12% 2-14% 4-13%
Illegal drugs
Yes 16-100% 14-100% 30-100%
No 0-0% 0-0% 0-0%
Yes 15-93% 14-100% 29-97%
No 1-7% 0-0% 1-3%
Yes 15-94% 13-93% 28-93%
No 1-6% 1-7% 2-7%
Availability of guns—especially handguns
Yes 11-69% 14-100% 25-83%
No 5-31% 0-0% 5-17%
Table 9. Why Do You Think People Kill Each Other?a
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Emotional/anger/situational 13-81% 11-79% 24-80%
Premeditated/planned/gang 7-44% 7-50% 14-47%
Drugs/money 5-31% 7-50% 12-40%
Criminal lifestyle 3-19% 0-0% 3-10%
Other 6-38% 5-36% 11-37%
a. Respondents gave multiple answers.
444 Homicide Studies 14(4)
Most detectives identified mental illness as a factor although it was more frequently
noted by Seattle detectives (75%) compared to Vancouver (57%). Detectives from both
departments estimated only about 5% of all homicides are related to mental illness.
Alcohol is identified by detectives in both departments as a primary factor in homicide.
Homicide detectives in both departments are unanimous that illegal drugs are a factor in
homicide. However, when explaining how illegal drugs affect homicide, they emphasize
the business/gang aspect, not the effects of the illegal drugs on individuals.
Detectives in both homicide squads identified gangs as a factor in homicides. However,
the proportion of homicides that are gang related has been declining since the mid-1990s
in Seattle, while increasing in Vancouver during the same period. Over 90% of detectives identified race/ethnicity as a factor in the gang involvement. The complexion of the
issue differs in each city. In Vancouver, where 49% of the population are people of color,
Asians are noted, while in Seattle it is African Americans followed by Asians.
The last factor addressed in Table 10 is availability of guns—especially handguns.
While all Vancouver homicide detectives believe this is a factor, only about two thirds
of Seattle detectives view this as a factor. In the next question, detectives were presented
with the fact that the homicide rate in Canada is one third that of the United States and
were asked to provide their opinion of why there is such a discrepancy. As Table 11
shows, gun availability is the top reason in both homicide units, but many more Canadian
homicide detectives (35%) cite this compared to American homicide detectives (28%).
Detectives in both departments are similar in noting the more violent nature of the United
States and the fact that there is more inequality in the United States than in Canada.
Vancouver detectives also identify that Canadians are more polite, have less of a drug
problem and a better safety net, while Seattle detectives identify Canadians having a better family structure.
Television, Homicide, and the Death Penalty
Since media crime and violence are popular, particularly in the United States, the next
question concerned the portrayal of homicide and homicide detectives in television
Table 11. Why Does the United States Have a Higher Rate and Canada a Lower Rate?a
Seattle Vancouver Combined
U.S. has more guns available 6-35% 11-79% 17-57%
U.S. more violent historically & now via war etc. 5-31% 4-29% 9-30%
More inequality in the United States 4-25% 5-36% 9-30%
United States has more racism/racial conflict 4-25% 3-21% 7-23%
Canadians more polite, not as uptight/driven 1-6% 3-21% 4-13%
Less drug problems in Canada 1-6% 3-21% 4-13%
Family Structure 3-19% 0-0% 3-10%
Canada has better safety net 0-0% 2-14% 2-7%
Other 5-31% 3-21% 8-27%
a. Respondents gave multiple answers.
Reasons et al. 445
crime shows. As Table 12 shows, the great majority of homicide detectives in both
departments view them as unrealistic.
Since Washington State, like most states, has the death penalty, whereas Canada and
most advanced industrial nations do not, the next question addressed the death penalty.
Although the detectives do not believe in the general deterrent effect of the death penalty, many support the death penalty. As per Table 13, homicide detectives in both
departments overwhelming do not view the death penalty as a general deterrent.
However, there is a major difference between the homicide units in terms of support for
the death penalty. Nearly all (93%) of Seattle detectives support it, while a slim majority (57%) of Vancouver detectives support the death penalty.
The characteristics of homicide detectives in both departments were quite similar. They
have at least 10 years police experience and are disproportionately drawn from previous work in robbery and sex crimes. The only major difference was that the Seattle
homicide detectives were largely graduates of college/university (75%), compared to
their Vancouver counterparts (46%).Although homicide units portrayed on TV are
often diverse in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, these units were made up of largely
White males. In the Vancouver homicide unit there were two women detectives and
one Black male detective. Although Vancouver is nearly half Asian, there were no
Asian homicide detectives. Asians, particularly East Indians, have a heavy involvement
in the drug/gang business and as offenders and victims of homicide. At the time of my
Table 12. There Are a Lot of Crime Shows on TV and They Often Portray Homicide and
Homicide Detectives, Do You Think They Are Realistic?
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Yes 4-27% 3-15% 7-23%
No 12-73% 11-85% 23-77%
Table 13. Death Penalty as Deterrent and Death Penalty Support
Seattle Vancouver Combined
Death penalty as deterrent
Yes 2-13% 3-21% 5-17%
No 14-87% 11-79% 25-83%
Support the death penalty
Yes 15-93% 8-57% 23-77%
No 1-7% 6-43% 7-23%
446 Homicide Studies 14(4)
interviews, Seattle homicide unit had one Hispanic male detective, two Japanese
American male detectives, and one women detective. There were no African American
homicide detectives although nearly half of Seattle homicide offenders and victims are
African American. The Vancouver homicide detectives noted that language differences
often arise in their investigation although they point out that there are several officers
on the force who provide translation for them. Therefore, although the two cities are
diverse, particularly Vancouver, the homicide units are largely White male.
Our analysis of interviews with homicide detectives in Vancouver, British Columbia
and Seattle, Washington provides a window to the working ideology of these homicide
detectives. Their views and opinions were assessed in the following four areas (a) working environment, (b) causes of homicide, (c) television portrayal of homicide work, and
(d) the death penalty.
Working Environment
In terms of working environment, homicide detectives in both departments sought this
job because of its high status, better resources, interesting and challenging work. This
confirms previous research regarding homicide detectives as the most prestigious type
of detective, with fewer cases and more resources than other detectives. In terms of
departmental differences, Seattle detectives were more likely to note the interesting and
challenging nature of homicide work, whereas Vancouver detectives focused on the
fact of more resources.
The next part of the work environment addressed was the best and worst aspect of
being a homicide detective. The top response regarding the best aspect was working
through the entire case and having the best personnel and resources. There is more
satisfaction in the Seattle unit with resources and overtime pay than in the Vancouver
unit. In terms of the worst aspects of the job, Seattle detectives were most likely to state
the hours/pagers going off in the middle of the night. In both departments, certain detectives are on call/up for the next homicide and will receive the 3 a.m. call. Homicide, of
course, does not conform to an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule. The most frequently
mentioned “bad” part according to Vancouver detectives was case failures due to “technicalities.” This is understandable, since Canada only recently passed a constitution
(1985) providing expanded rights to the accused similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights. It
takes several decades to settle case law regarding these rights and, as we know in the
United States, these rights change over time with case law. The Canadian Case law over
the last decade has tightened the “rules” of police, generally, and homicide detectives,
specifically. Another noticeable difference is Seattle detectives were more likely to cite
child victims as one of the worst aspects, whereas Vancouver detectives noted strong
personalities/egos. This reflects the fact that Vancouver has fewer small children as
victims than Seattle, while the Vancouver unit was undergoing a great deal of change in
leadership and much stress.
People skills were noted most frequently by homicide detectives as the most important skills needed for the job. This makes sense, since detectives must converse with
Reasons et al. 447
potential witnesses from all “walks of life,” victims’ families/friends/acquaintances/
patrol officers, forensic people, prosecutors, crime lab investigators, and suspects. As
one detective noted regarding suspects “never ask a person if they killed someone. It
is like a sales school, lead them to the car,” or another observed “you have to be nice
to child molesters/murderers and put aside your revulsion.” Being organized and interviewing skills were next most frequent although these were more likely mentioned by
Seattle detectives. Obviously these are significant abilities, given the amount of material, number of people, forms, contacts, and so on needed for each case.
One of the biggest myths perpetrated by television and other media is that being a
homicide detective is very dangerous. Homicide detectives rated their job as the least
dangerous in their police careers. As one said, “When you are called out to a homicide
scene it is the safest place on earth. You show up and the victim is dead, perp gone, and
ten cops with their hands in their pockets. Only danger is spilling hot coffee on yourself.” Most detectives noted that if they have a dangerous suspect to arrest, they would
use the SWAT squad or a similar unit. Thus, like the research shows, policing is a relatively safe occupation compared to others, such as construction, mining, and fishing,
and within policing, being a homicide detective is very safe (Kappeler & Potter, 2005).
When you look at the actual job of homicide detectives, about 80% of the job takes
place in the office, while only about 20% is being on the street, usually regarding witnesses, crime scenes, informants, courts, for example, and so on.
The relationship with the prosecutor/crown was the next question. This aspect of
detective work is often overlooked by researchers, but it is a key part of their job.
The most frequent response was a “good” relationship in both units, although, Seattle
detectives were significantly more satisfied than Vancouver detectives. This difference is largely due to their different social and legal environment. In Seattle, a new
program had been instituted in recent years whereby specific prosecutors are assigned
to a case from crime scene through trial. In Vancouver (and Canada) there is a tradition of more separation of the Crown and the police. Also, given the recent emergence
of more established Constitutional Rights for accused in Canada, Crown attorneys are
“policing” more carefully the work of homicide detectives. It appears that there is
less likely to be the continuity of a single Crown counsel from the homicide to arrest
to adjudication, as in Seattle.
Finally, success in homicide work is largely measured by clearance of cases, as part
of the work environment. Although homicide has the highest rate of clearances for
crimes, since the 1970s homicide clearance rates have declined in both the United
States and Canada. When asked their opinions on why this has occurred, Vancouver
detectives were most likely to cite legal rules/courts/technicalities, while only one Seattle
detective gave this response. The major factor noted by Seattle detectives was that there
were more organized/gang homicides and stranger homicides. Some Vancouver detectives noted organized gang homicides but not stranger homicide. The above noted
factors, types of legal changes, plus resources, police/prosecutor relationships, and
political environment may all play a role in clearance rates. (“Special Issue: Criminal
Justice Responses to Homicide,” 2007).
448 Homicide Studies 14(4)
Causes of Homicide
Most people have a set of opinions (ideology) regarding why people commit crime
generally, and homicide, specifically. Of course, members of the criminal justice system also have a “professional ideology” regarding the causes of crime. When asked
the global question, “Why do you think people kill each other?” the large majority of
homicide detectives identified “emotional/anger/situational factors” as prominent.
This is the major reason for homicide cited by academics in both Canada (Gomme,
2002) and the United States (Miethe & Regoeczi, 2004). These motives are prominent
in homicide throughout the world. The next most frequent response was premeditated/
planned/gang homicide.
Homicide detectives identified a number of specific factors associated with the occurrence of homicides. Inequality/poverty was noted by the large majority of detectives.
As one Seattle detective observed, “When I was first in the department, I thought everyone could make it, but in poor neighborhoods there is a lack of direction, drugs and
alcohol.” According to a Vancouver detective, “It seems poor people do more risky
things in their lives to make ends meet, such as prostitution/theft/murder.” This structural factor has been identified as a cause of homicide by researchers around the world.
The majority of detectives in both cities identified “mental illness” with homicide in
about 5% of cases, with Seattle homicide detectives more frequently citing this cause.
According to one Seattle detective, “they get off meds and already have a drug problem,” while a Vancouver detective places this factor in a policy context, “Especially
since the 1990s when the Provinces closed beds, they go off meds and commit homicide and get killed by officers (suicide by cop).” While mental illness plays a relatively
small role in homicides, the media overemphasizes these few cases. (Kappeler & Potter,
2005). Since Canada generally, and Vancouver specifically, has a more adequate social
safety net, including mental health services, this might explain the more frequent
response by Seattle homicide detectives.
Drugs were identified by detectives in both departments as a major factor in homicide.
However, their casual relationship to homicide was distinguished by the detectives. The
legal drug alcohol was viewed as a primary factor in causing homicide due to the loosening of inhibition, bravado, anger, particularly in domestic and nightclub/party homicides. As one Seattle detective pointedly observed, “Yes, if there were no alcohol or
drugs we would be out of business.” In Vancouver, a detective relates that “it is significant, we get domestic and club shootings-drinking.” They all note that alcohol takes
away inhibitions, and brings out Machismo. Although all homicide detectives viewed
illegal drugs as a factor in homicide, their understanding of the casual relationship
differs from that of alcohol. In terms of illegal drugs, the large majority of homicide
detectives explain that they are related to the business/trade/market in illegal drugs,
not the physiological effect of illegal drugs. A Seattle detective summarizes this point,
“most homicides are related to traffic/trade, not caused by the effect of illegal drugs.”
In Vancouver, a homicide detective observes “it is the money making aspect-business
that leads to homicide-not taking drugs.” This difference has long been noted by
Reasons et al. 449
researchers. Alcohol is our most dangerous drug in terms of producing violence, generally, and homicide, specifically.
Gangs and race/ethnicity were identified by the large majority of homicide detectives as significant factors. Seattle detectives commented that gangs had decreased in
the past decade. This confirms United States national data (Miethe & Regeozi, 2004) In
Vancouver, while homicide rates have been decreasing over the last decade like Seattle,
the proportion of homicides that are gang related has been increasing since 2000. Since
2000, Vancouver has a much higher proportion of gang/drug homicide than Seattle
(Reasons, 2008).
Over 90% of detectives in both cities identified race/ethnicity as factors in homicide. This was also noted in terms of gangs being disproportionately made up of racial/
ethnic minorities. In Vancouver, Indo-Canadian (East Indian) and Chinese minorities
were noted, while in Seattle, Blacks were primarily identified, with Asians to a lesser
degree. As a detective in Vancouver noted, “Huge Indo-Canadian gang problem.” In
Seattle, where Blacks are about 10% of the population, they make up nearly half of the
victims and offenders in homicide cases. The relationship of race and class is in a
Seattle homicide detective’s observation “rates are higher in poor, black, minority
communities.” The Vancouver population is 49% visible minorities, compared to 18%
visible minorities in Seattle. Homicide offenders and victims are disproportionately
ethnic/racial minorities in Canada, United States, England, and other Western countries.
This largely is due to their being economically disadvantaged (Miethe & Regeoczi,
2004). Criminologists have long identified race/ethnicity and immigration with gangs
(Thrasher, 1925).
The last specific factor addressed was availability of guns, especially handguns.
Here we find a major difference between Vancouver and Seattle homicide detectives.
While all Vancouver detectives view this as a factor, only about two-thirds of Seattle
detectives had the same view. This undoubtedly reflects the fact that guns, particularly
handguns, are not easily available in Canada, consisting of less than 30% of the homicides. The history of the United States and the 2nd Amendment, the fact that the United
States has more guns in private citizens homes per capita than any other country in the
world, and that two thirds of homicides in the United States are by guns explains this
difference in the ”Ideology” of guns. The “taken for granted” nature of guns and the
ideology of guns and “self protection” and individualism, is not obvious to most people
in the United States, but those in other countries readily identify this as a cause of homicide in the United States.
In the last question concerning the “factors/causes” of homicide, the detectives were
cited the fact that the United States has 3 times the rate of homicide as Canada and
asked for their opinion why there is this difference. While gun availability is the most
identified factor in both homicide units, twice as many Canadian homicide detectives cite this compared to their American colleagues. Both homicide detective units
next point to the more violent history and the greater inequality in the United States.
International research shows a positive correlation between levels of firearm ownership and homicide rates (Dandurand, 1998). Inequality differences between Canada
450 Homicide Studies 14(4)
and the United States and within each country is also a factor in homicide (Daly,
Wilson, & Vasdev, 2001). Generally, increased inequality coupled with perceptions
of illegitimacy in developed nations increases homicide rates (Chamblin & Cockran,
2006; Jacobs & Richardson, 2008).
Television and the Death Penalty
The large majority of homicide detectives believe television shows depicting homicide and homicide detective work are unrealistic. “The shows tend to ham up
dangerousness and glamour/CSI is totally distorted,” according to one Vancouver
detective. Homicide detectives spend about 80% of their time in the office, and
rarely draw, much less use, their weapon, and are not all young, attractive, and well
dressed as on TV. A Seattle detective observes that they are “generally unrealistic in
their portrayal of detectives.” The only show meriting some reality on both sides
of the border was Homicide: Life on the Streets, largely for the personalities and
interpersonal relations. As we already know from extensive research, the portrayal
of crime and criminal justice in the media generally, and on television specifically,
has little to do with the reality of crime and criminal justice (Kappeler & Potter,
2005; Surette, 2007).
While Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, the majority of states, including
Washington, have the death penalty. The overwhelming majority of detectives in both
departments do not view the death penalty as a general deterrent. This is based on their
own experience that most homicides are situational/emotional and most killers do not
believe they will be caught. This, of course, is supported by a long line of empirical
research showing that death penalty is not a general deterrent.
However, there are major differences between the two cities when it came to support
for the death penalty. A slight majority of Vancouver detectives support it, while nearly
all Seattle detectives support it. Supporters from both departments view it in terms of
retribution. The nearly half of Vancouver homicide detectives who do not support the
death penalty noted that the state should respect life and the issue of wrongful convictions. The issue of wrongful conviction for murder has been documented in the United
States and in Canada.
The ideology (belief/opinions) of homicide detectives in Seattle, Washington and
Vancouver, British Columbia are generally similar. The only areas of major differences
concerned the role guns play in homicide and their views on the death penalty.
While availability of guns, particularly handguns, is singled out by homicide detectives as a factor in homicide by detectives in both cities, there is a major difference
in its significances. Only about two thirds of Seattle detectives cite this, while all
Vancouver detectives view guns as a major factor. This difference was further highlighted when they were asked to explain why the U.S. homicide rate is three times the
Reasons et al. 451
Canadian homicide rate. Twice as many Canadian detectives identified gun availably
as a significant factor compared to Seattle detectives.
Homicide detectives in both departments do not view the death penalty as a general deterrent. However, Seattle detectives overwhelmingly support the death penalty
as a form of retribution, while a slim majority of Vancouver detectives have this view.
Nearly half of Vancouver detectives are against the death penalty, citing respect for
life and wrongful convictions.
The similarities and differences found among homicide detectives in Seattle and
Vancouver reflect the nature of homicide work, the causes of homicide, police organizational characteristics, and the legal and cultural context of homicide.
The authors greatly appreciate the cooperation of the Seattle and Vancouver police departments,
particularly former Seattle Chief Gil Kerlikowski.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
Chamblin, M. B., & Cochran, J. K. (2006). Economic inequality, legitimacy, cross-national
homicide rates. Homicide Studies, 10, 231-252.
Daly, M., Wilson, M., & Vasdev, S. (2001). Income inequality and homicide rates in Canada and
the United States. Canadian Journal of Criminology, 43, 219-236.
Dandurand, Y. (1998) Firearms, accidental deaths, suicides and violent crimes: Ottawa, Ontario,
Canada: Department of Justice.
Erickson, R. V., (1981). Making crime: A study of detective work. Toronto, Ontario, Canada:
Jacobs, D., & Richardson, A. M. (2008). Economic inequality and homicide in the developed
nations from 1975-1995. Homocide Studies, 12, 28-45.
Kappeler, V. F., & Potter, G. W. (2005). The mythology of crime and criminal justice (4th ed.).
Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
Kelleher, M. J. (2001, Winter). The professional ideology of social pathologists transformed:
The new political orthodoxy in sociology. American Sociologist, 32(4), 70-88.
Liazos, A. (1972). The poverty of the sociology of deviance: Nuts/ sluts/ and perverts. Social
Problems, 20, 102-120.
Miethe, T., & Regoeczi, W. C. (2004). Rethinking homicide. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge
University Press.
Miller, W. B. (1973). Ideology and criminal justice policy: Some current issues. Journal of
Criminal Law and Criminology, 64, 141-162.
452 Homicide Studies 14(4)
Mills, C. W. ( 1943). The professional ideology of social pathologists. American Journal of
Sociology, 49, 165-180.
Quinney, R. ( 1970). The social reality of crime. Boston: Little, Brown.
Radzinowicz, L. (1966). Ideology and crime. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reasons,C. (2008). A tale of two cities: Homicide in Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British
Columbia. Criminal Law Quarterly, 54, 104-129.
Sanders, W. (1977). Detective work. New York: Tree Press.
Special Issue: Criminal Justice Responses to Homicide. (2007). Homicide Studies, 11, 79-164.
Surette, R. (2007). Media, crime and criminal justice (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson
Thrasher, F. M. (1927). The gang. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Walker, S., & Katz, C. (2008). The police in America (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Charles E. Reasons is professor and chair of the Department of Law and Justice at Central
Washington University. He received his PhD in sociology from Washington State University in
1972 and his LLB in 1992 from the University of British Columbia Law School. He practiced
law in Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s. He has published nine books and scores of
articles and book chapters on social and legal problems in the United States and Canada, while
teaching in both countries.
David Kim just completed his MS degree in criminal justice at Washington State University
and is working in Olympia, Washington. He is a 2007 graduate of the Department of Law and
Justice at Central Washington University.
Teresa Francis is an assistant professor in the Department of Law and Justice at Central
Washington University. She is a lawyer with a JD from Mississippi College School of Law and
an LLM specializing in criminal law from the State University of New York at Buffalo School
of Law. She specializes in criminal and civil law and procedure, family law, and correctional law.

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