October 25, 2019
Recently I wrote that crime rates are at a near all-time low. According to the FBI, violent crime in the United States has been cut nearly in half in the last 25 years.
However, a closer look at the data reveals problems. Most crimes are not reported to police, and most reported crimes are not solved.
In its biannual survey, the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics asks victims of crime whether they reported the crime to police. The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is a national survey of approximately 49,000 to 77,400 households, on the frequency of crime victimization, as well as, characteristics and consequences of victimization.
In 2018, only 43% of violent crimes tracked in the NCVS were reported to police. And in the much more common category of property crime, only 34% were reported.
Crimes go unreported for all sorts of reasons, including fear of repercussions, lack of trust in the police, long waits for police to respond to a call or simply disinterest in involving the police in a minor incident.
There are obvious reasons why some crimes are reported more often than others. Homicide, for instance, leaves behind a significant piece of evidence - a body. Sure, there are unreported homicides, victims go missing, and their bodies never recovered, but homicide has an extremely high rate of police involvement.
Rape, on the other hand, is different. Women are reluctant to report rape and men who have been raped rarely report their victimization to the police. According to the NCVS, less than 1 in 4 sexual assaults are reported to the police.
According to NCVS data, aggravated assault and auto theft are reported to the police at much higher rates. For example, nearly four out of every five auto thefts are reported to the police.
Stolen vehicles are expensive to replace and are more likely to be recovered by police than other stolen items. In addition, the vast majority of cars are insured and most insurance policies require a police report before companies will pay on a claim.
Aggravated assaults involve the intent to inflict serious bodily injury. As such, these crimes are more likely to result in hospitalization and most states require hospitals to report suspicious injuries to law enforcement.
Unfortunately, an even dire problem comes to light after crimes are reported. According to the Pew Research Center, most of the crimes reported to police are never solved. Based on a measure known as the “clearance rate,” the FBI determines the percentage of crimes that are closed or “cleared.” In the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, law enforcement agencies can clear offenses in one of two ways - arrest or by exceptional means.
Clearance by exceptional means includes the death of a suspect or the reluctance of the victim or witnesses to cooperate in an investigation.
According to Pew, police nationwide cleared 46% of violent crimes that were reported to them last year. Clearance of property crimes was an abysmal 18%.
Clearance rates have declined precipitously over the last 50 years. In 1965, the clearance rate for homicide was just above 90%. Last year, the clearance rate nationwide was 62.3%.
Although homicide has declined dramatically in this country from a high water mark of 24,530 in 1993 to 16,214 last year, solving murders has become more difficult. Even with modern investigative techniques, more homicides than ever remain unsolved.
The scope of the problem is enormous. If you take the total number of murders over the last 10 years and divide that number by the average clearance rate the result is approximately 54,000 unsolved murders. That means there are as many as 50,000 killers walking among us.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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