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How many crimes does your police department solve?

Fewer than you think, unfortunately.

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Violent crime in America has been falling for two decades. That’s the good news. The bad news is, when crimes occur, they mostly go unpunished.

In fact, for most major crimes, police don’t even make an arrest or identify a suspect. That’s what police call “clearing” a crime; the “clearance rate” is the percentage of offenses cleared.

In 2013, the national clearance rate for homicide was 64 percent, and it’s far lower for other violent offenses and property crimes.

University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford says police have shifted priorities over the decades.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, no one thought that the police should be held responsible for how much crime there was,” Wellford says. Back then, he adds, police focused on calls for service and solving crimes.

In more recent years, he says, police have been pushed to focus more on prevention, which has taken precedence over solving crimes — especially non-violent offenses.

In short, the falling crime rate we’ve enjoyed may come at a cost: police indifference when you report your stereo was stolen.

I admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me. I would have thought that with less crime, police departments would be more able to solve the crimes that were committed, since there would be less of a workload. I’m not a criminologist and I haven’t read any research on this, but my initial reaction here is to be a little skeptical. In what ways are police departments focused on crime prevention, and what evidence is there that those methods are working? My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes. While I would agree that there’s some ancillary prevention benefit in that, we all know that this comes with a variety of costs. Maybe the national effort to decriminalize some drug offenses will have the benefit of allowing police departments to once again focus on solving the crimes that really do victimize the public.

The article comes with a utility to look up the crime clearance rates in your own community. Here’s what it showed for some of Texas’ biggest cities:

All violent crime Homicide Property crime City 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 2011 2012 2013 ====================================================================== Houston 46% 39% 37% 90% 70% 76% 13% 12% 11% Abilene 47% 49% 64% 80% 100% 100% 25% 22% 20% Amarillo 40% 45% 48% 60% 100% 44% 18% 19% 22% Austin 49% 49% 57% 93% 87% 100% 12% 12% 13% Beaumont 70% 70% 69% 100% 100% 75% 23% 28% 27% Corpus Christi 54% 53% 45% 67% 63% 100% 20% 23% 19% Dallas 38% 40% 37% 65% 58% 60% 13% 11% 11% El Paso 48% 47% 49% 88% 96% 80% 18% 20% 22% Fort Worth 36% 38% 39% 61% 80% 86% 14% 16% 17% Laredo 80% 80% 79% 64% 88% 100% 20% 24% 28% Lubbock 30% 32% 34% 50% 73% 100% 15% 15% 19% McAllen 56% 66% 38% 50% 100% 0% 20% 22% 16% Midland 66% 68% 59% 100% 75% 40% 22% 25% 27% Plano 54% 51% 47% 80% 100% 100% 22% 22% 19% San Antonio 48% 36% 37% 80% 70% 75% 12% 11% 12% Waco 56% 56% 55% 91% 67% 50% 23% 23% 26%

Note that these are all for the above-named cities’ municipal police departments. I limited myself to cities that I could think of that had a population of at least 100,000. (Galveston, in case you were wondering, has about 48,000 people.) “Violent crime” includes “Murder and non-negligent manslaughter”, which I characterize above as “Homicide”, “Robbery”, and “Aggravated assault”. “Property Crime” includes “Burglary”, “Larceny-theft”, “Motor vehicle theft”, and “Arson”.

Don’t be too mesmerized by the Homicide solve rates for smaller cities. The total annual number for these crimes in cities of, say, 100,000 to 200,000, is often in the single digits. McAllen, for example, had 4 homicides in 2011, one in 2012, and two in 2013. In a few cases, such as Beaumont for 2011 and 2012, the number of murders solved was greater than the number of murders. My guess is that the solved crimes included cold cases, but there was no explanation on the site. I just listed those as 100% to avoid weirdness.

What stands out to me in all this is that generally speaking the smaller cities had much better solve rates for property crimes than the big cities. In Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, the solve rates for property crimes never topped 13%, but in the smaller cities it ranged from 18% to 28%. Fort Worth and Lubbock were the outliers there, on the low end. I’m not sure what to make of that, but it sure is interesting.

What application does this have to the 2015 Mayor’s race? (You knew I was going to get around to that, I’m sure.) Well, in addition to my wish that the candidates will eventually start to talk about public safety in a more comprehensive way, I’d think that a candidate who promised to have his police force concentrate on solving property crimes might be able to sway a voter or two. Lord knows, the Nextdoor discussion list for the greater Heights area spends a lot of time on break-ins and thefts and the like. Given how many of these crimes do go unsolved today, it seems to me there’s some traction to be gained on this issue. Just a thought.

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5 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    “My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes.”

    Your gut would be wrong, perhaps eating too much grits causing the belief. In Houston, the recent staffing report indicated their Narcotics division was assigned 160 officers (plus supervisors and minimal clerical staff). That is out of about 5200 officers total.

    The difference between now and 30 or more years ago is that police are expected to play a far larger and more comprehensive role in society. Ever watch an episode of Dragnet where Joe Friday was on bike patrol, stuck doing yearly or monthly budget reports, assigned to the police academy for a few years, or any of the hundreds of assignments in areas relating to regional task forces, inventory control, dispatch, etc?

    While cities like Houston have cut back on community service programs (locally, much of that was at the hands of Clarence Bradford), they still assign many to that kind of thing, others work the traffic squads or provide free traffic control to local sport teams (as part of the agreements to appease the rich owners), or any of the many investigative divisions but patrol is the largest part for manpower.

    Legalizing drugs completely would merely reduce the amount of time patrol officers spend processing those caught with drugs but half measures like decriminalizing will still require almost all the labor intensive elements of the offense to remain (the officer would still have to write a report, put the drugs in the appropriate storage area, insure identity of the suspect, etc). Under complete legalization, the officers would still be answering almost all the same calls (just not the reports of drug activity), they just wouldn’t have to deal with drug possession cases as such; still needing to arrest the guy beating his wife while he was high, caught shoplifting to pay for his drug of choice, etc. I’m in favor of legalizing the drug of choice, pot, while enhancing the crimes committed under various drug influence but I’m not holding my breath for it to happen before full gambling is legalized in Texas (and not just on Indian reservations).

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    “My gut says that police departments these days – really, for the past thirty or so years – have concentrated on drug-related crimes.”

    The War on Drugs is a lot like the War on Motorists. It’s “gotcha” policing. What is easier, checking property for serial numbers, or discovering drugs and drug paraphernalia? If the officers suspect there is stolen property at the scene of that domestic dispute, would it hurt to run some serial numbers? Would that take more time than the “a-ha, I caught you with drugs” search? Sure, and it would result in a much smaller number of ancillary arrests.

    ” I’m in favor of legalizing the drug of choice, pot, while enhancing the crimes committed under various drug influence….”

    I can agree with that.

  3. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, if they have a reasonable suspicion that property is stolen, they DO run said serial numbers. The problem is that most people reporting crimes locally do not give the police such numbers because they don’t take the time to write them down. Then, the city does little follow up for lack of manpower as discussed previously.

    So yes, if a cop is at a domestic dispute call and comes across a wall of car stereos with the wires hanging out as though ripped and the female partner claims her assailant stole them, they will be run. If someone has a television mounted on the wall with no reason to suspect it is stolen, it won’t be run. With drugs, I suspect the smell and/or actions of those involved in the dispute yield huge clues as to the elicit nature of the substance (whichever drug it might be) upon which time the officer is obligated to act.

  4. Paul Kubosh says:

    The most common reason for contact with the police is being a driver in a traffic stop. In 2008, an estimated 44% of face-to-face contacts that U.S. residents had with police occurred for this reason. About half of all traffic stops that year resulted in a traffic ticket. Approximately 5% of all stopped drivers were searched by police during a traffic

    stop.http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=702

    Self interest alert….police are writing an average of 30,000 fewer traffic citations per month. Assume that the average person who recieves a citiation gets 2.5 tickets. (i.e. speeding, registration and inspection). That means there are 12,000 fewer encounters per month. If 5% of those 12,000 stops results in searches then that means that their are 600 fewer searches per month. If their are fewer searches then there are fewer arrests. If there are fewer arrests then crime is down.

    As to pot I would make it a class C misd. write them a ticket and suspend their license if they are convicted.

  5. Steven Houston says:

    So Paul, what are your thoughts on the rest of all this? By that, I mean the ongoing discussion regarding HPD’s lack of transparency on policies for body cameras and stingers, the tens of thousands of un-investigated crimes, manpower prioritization, the true need for expensive new facilities, and the request for 1200+ additional officers?

    I ask because you seem a reasonable enough sort of fellow, a trained lawyer who deals with the city all the time, own a business inside the city limits, and who seems to get along with most officers as far as some of us can tell based on reports. I’d ask about pensions but you stated previously that you didn’t know enough about the financing, city police getting the bulk of raises over the last 18 years in the form of direct pay while HFD was given compensation mostly in the form of enhanced pensions.