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
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
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