Is Police Drug Emphasis Influencing Clearance Rate Decline?


The national decline in the rate that police “clear” crimes by arrests or other dispositions is “fraught with implications,” says Scott Christianson, a former New York State criminal justice official, in the Christian Science Monitor. The clearance rate for reported homicides has 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. Clearance rates have sunk to 42 percent for forcible rape, 26 percent for robbery, and 13 percent for burglary and motor vehicle theft, all down from earlier eras. In Boston, the homicide clearance rate plummeted to only 28 percent in 2004, which Christianson calls a shocking development for a city that gained lavish praise for crime reductions in the 1990s.

As crime has dropped and arrest totals have risen, what accounts for declining clearance rates? Christianson says that instead of arresting suspects for burglaries and other serious crimes, cops today spend much of their energy going after illegal drugs. Asked why the clearance rate has dropped so much, criminologist 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.”


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