Clearances: Better Gauge of Policing Than Crime Rate?


Last year, nine out of 10 Houston murder cases were solved. Or were they, asks the Houston Chronicle? Federal reporting rules can make calculating the number of solved crimes almost as difficult as actually solving them. The Houston Police Department cleared, or solved, 58 percent of the cases involving victims slain in 2008, a figure that puts it close to the national average of about 61 percent. Add in the arrests for murders that occurred in previous years and the clearance rate jumps to 89 percent. Houston, like police departments nationwide, counts a murder solved or “cleared” the year an arrest is made. Cases also can be cleared without an arrest if the suspect is killed or already behind bars.

“The rules on clearance leave a lot of latitude for interpretation,” explains Larry Hoover, director of the police research center at Sam Houston State University. Criminologist Charles Wellford of the University of Maryland pointed out how a police “cold case” unit in Kansas City brought another 15 solved cases for a particular year to its annual murder clearance tally. The department then issued two sets of numbers for that year to explain what it did. Clearance rates, Wellford says , are a better gauge of how well police are performing than the crime rate. Crime rates fluctuate for various reasons. An increase in police hiring, a good economy and low unemployment are factors that can make a crime rate go down as some believe occurred in the mid-to-late 1990s in Houston. A city's annual crime rate has little to do with police performance, Wellford said.

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