The F.B.I. released data this fall that gives us a glimpse of how policing in America has changed since the disruption of the pandemic years. The evidence is clear: Police departments across the country are solving far fewer crimes than they did before 2020, reported The New York Times.
The clearance rates — essentially the percentage of crimes leading to arrests — for violent or property crimes have dropped to their lowest levels since the F.B.I. started tracking them in the 1960s (though lower arrest standards probably drove the high clearance rates in the 1960s and 1970s).
In 2022 police departments, on average, solved only 37 percent of violent crimes, just over half of murders and nonnegligent manslaughters and only 12 percent of property crimes.
While headlines tend to focus on falling clearance rates in large liberal cities, the decline occurred nationwide in both red and blue cities, counties and states. The violent crime clearance rate, for example, fell considerably between 2019 to 2022 in big cities, which tend to be led by Democrats, as well as in small cities and suburban and rural counties, which tend to be led by Republicans.
Rising crime rates are unlikely to be the culprit. More crime could certainly lead to lower clearance rates — if a department makes the same number of arrests but crime doubles, then the clearance rate would fall as a matter of mathematics — but in fact, the F.B.I. reports that violent crimes fell between 2020 and 2022.
The exact causes of the decline in arrests are difficult to pinpoint, but the timing is clearly tied to the summer of 2020, suggesting that changes in policing and America’s dwindling confidence in law enforcement since the killing of George Floyd played a role.
Sentencing and judicial reform tend to make up the bulk of our policy responses to crime and policing, but this new data suggests that increasing the share of crimes that are solved — especially violent crimes — should be a major focus of policymakers nationwide.
If you were considering stealing a car, the primary factors guiding your choice probably aren’t the charges you’d receive or the time you’d serve if convicted. Instead, you’d be more concerned with the immediate question of witnesses, anti-theft devices and cameras that might bring the police to your doorstep. Moreover, imprisonment may even increase the chance a person will go on to commit crimes after being released.
Unfortunately, police departments are struggling in their efforts to improve their crime-solving abilities.
Many police departments — especially in cities — are much smaller than they were before the pandemic. Low morale and extreme stresses in the departments have led to high levels of resignations among older and more experienced officers and significantly fewer recruits to replace them. This year the number of police officers in New Orleans reached its lowest level since the 1940s, and the numbers in Los Angeles and Seattle declined to levels not seen in decades.
Having fewer officers available to respond to the scene of a crime means fewer clues, fewer witnesses and fewer tips for detectives to go on. It also means significantly longer response times, leaving clues to grow stale and witnesses to disappear before officers arrive.
Staffing shortages also trickle down to the investigative work that happens in offices and labs long after a crime has been committed. For a long time, conventional wisdom pointed to factors beyond the control of law enforcement — such as whether a witness was present or whether physical evidence was left behind — as the primary drivers of solving crimes. The work of the investigator was perceived to matter less.
But newer research from a criminologist, Anthony A. Braga, presents a clear connection between the amount of investigative resources dedicated to a crime and the likelihood of its being solved. It may seem obvious, but it takes bodies, time and sustained effort to work a case.
Another important factor is the change in national attitude toward the police in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s murder in 2020. Polling from Gallup shows that public support for the police has fallen significantly over the past few years. This year only 43 percent of people said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the police — a 10 percentage point drop from 2019.
The solution to this problem is not as simple as hiring more police officers, especially considering the challenging hiring environment for police departments. Agencies should consider improving their clearance rates by employing more current officers as investigators.
Some agencies have also begun to hire more civilians to help. Civilians can respond to low-level incidents that don’t require an officer, take reports over the phone and aid investigators in solving cases. Civilians are easier and cheaper to hire than officers. They reduce officers’ workloads, allowing agencies to dedicate more time to improving investigations.
An unsolved crime cuts twice: It erodes people’s trust in law enforcement and could encourage others to commit similar offenses. It should be in the interest of all Americans for as many crimes as possible — especially heinous violent crimes — to be solved. It’s unclear whether the recent decline in clearance rates will be permanent, but we should consider the drop to be an early warning sign that police effectiveness nationwide may be in decline.
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