Plummeting Arrest Clearance Rates — a victim of the drug war?

This could be huge. Former NY state criminal justice official Scott Christianson takes a different look at crime statistics in today’s Christian Science Monitor.
Christianson first notes that violent crime has been falling, particularly in the past 10 years, and in some cases has reached its lowest point in 40 years.
And yet…

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.

If the crimes aren’t being cleared, is this due to a lack of police resources? Apparently not.

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.

Now, the causality is far from certain — there certainly are other factors involved, and more research is needed. But it makes a lot of sense, and there’s plenty of evidence to support the notion that the drug war has interfered with, or distracted, police from doing their job in other areas. Partly due to the additional work load of dealing with the drug war, but also through focusing on the drug war to the expense of other crimes. Not every police officer or department is seduced by the glamor (or profit) of the drug bust, but many are.
And this goes right up the line. For example, after 911

While Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida minions were diligently preparing for their murderous mission, the FBI was looking the other way with equal determination. More than twice as many FBI agents were assigned to fighting drugs (2,500) than fighting terrorism (1,151). And a far greater amount of the FBI’s financial resources was dedicated to the war on drugs….
In Phoenix, where the now infamous Ken Williams memo originated, counterterrorism agents complained bitterly about their efforts being given “the lowest investigative priority” by a supervisor who preferred glamorous drug-fighting investigations.

Christianson speculates that the drug war could affect police performance in other ways, such as emboldening violent criminals who assume a lower likelihood of being caught, or decreasing community cooperation with police.
So is the drug war making up less safe from murderers, thieves and rapists? At the very least, this whole issue demands further investigation.

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.”


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