Pubdate: Wed, 18 Jan 2006
Source: Christian Science Monitor (US)
Copyright: 2006 The Christian Science Publishing Society
Author: Scott Christianson
Note: Author is a former NY state criminal justice official, is the author
of several books about crime and punishment.
OPED: Questioning US Arrest Statistics
QUESTIONING US ARREST STATISTICS
by Scott Christianson, (Source:Christian Science Monitor)
18 Jan 2006
SAND LAKE, N.Y. -- Policing in the United States has changed a lot during
the past 50 years. Higher education and training requirements have led to
greater police professionalism, and most departments' ranks have benefited
from huge increases of personnel, stunning technological advancements,
forensics breakthroughs, and affirmative action policies that presumably
have led to a more representative workforce sensitive to civil rights.
Policing's academic side has also prospered from decades of ample government
Many observers credit the police because reported crime in the nation has
generally been going down for nearly a decade. Reported homicides in New
York City and other jurisdictions recently hit their lowest level in more
than 40 years.
But discussions of police performance often fail to note another important
but overlooked trend, apparently unrelated to the falling crime rate:
Federal statistics reveal that the nation's "clearance rate" - the
percentage of cases for which police arrest or identify a suspect - has
fallen dramatically. And this shift is fraught with implications.
The arrest clearance rate for reported homicides recently dropped to about
60 percent compared with about 90 percent 50 years ago. This means that a
murderer today has about a 40 percent chance of avoiding arrest compared
with less than 10 percent in 1950. The record for other FBI Index Crimes is
even more dismal: The clearance rates have sunk to 42 percent for forcible
rape, 26 percent for robbery, and 13 percent for burglary and motor vehicle
theft, all way down from earlier eras.
In Boston, the homicide clearance rate plummeted to only 28 percent in 2004
- a shocking development for a city that gained lavish praise for crime
reductions in the 1990s.
Judging a police department or the criminal justice system as a whole based
simply on arrest statistics wouldn't be wise, for the police can and do
fulfill many crucial functions in our society, such as maintaining public
order and helping to protect citizens from terrorist attack. But ignoring
measures of how the police deal with reported serious crime isn't smart
It's not that America's cops haven't been making arrests - in fact, their
total annual arrests jumped from 3.3 million in the nation in 1960 to 14
million in 2004, a staggering number that helps to explain why the United
States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world.
So, if reported crime has been going down and arrests have gone up, what
accounts for the plummeting arrest clearance rates for murder, robbery,
rape, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft?
Part of the answer must involve drug law enforcement - victimless offenses
that aren't reported to the police or included as FBI Index Crimes. Instead
of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious reported crimes, cops
today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Their arrest
rate for drug possession ( especially marijuana ) has shot up more than 500
times from what it was in 1965.
And what are some possible implications of this shift?
For one thing, it may give criminals the impression they can get away with
nondrug related crimes.
For another, it may lessen public support for the police. Polls show those
who live in "high crime" neighborhoods are generally the most dissatisfied
with the police. Maybe this is because they have reported to the police
that they have been victimized by robbery and other serious crimes, then
witnessed that the police are not arresting anyone for it but are instead
aggressively waging a "war on drugs" in the community.
Nevertheless, the matter of falling arrest clearance rates hasn't received
much scrutiny from the police or the public.
Asked why the arrest clearance rate has dropped so much, one leading police
scholar, Professor David Bayley of the State University of New York at
Albany, said, "I haven't a clue. I've been involved in the field for 40
years and best as I can tell, nobody has even raised this stuff. Hearing
about it now is like being hit by a bus."
One interpretation might be that the changing statistics actually indicate
that today's police are acting more judiciously, for as one former New York
Police Department homicide detective, now a private investigator, put it,
"Just because cops were more likely to arrest somebody in the old days than
they are today doesn't mean they didn't make a lot of mistakes back then, by
beating false confessions out of innocent people and such."
Whatever the reasons, this significant trend in the police response to
reported crime should prompt some serious discussion about contemporary law
enforcement's priorities and effectiveness.