Law enforcement agencies around the country keep records of every crime that is committed in their jurisdiction, and each crime stays “on the books” until someone is charged with the offense. In police parlance, bringing charges against a suspect is referred to as “clearing” the crime.
Every year, the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Report, which shows the nationwide clearance rate for various crimes, compiled from the country’s agencies. For example, in 2013, the clearance rate for homicide in the United States was 64%. That means that in roughly one out of every three cases, no charges were brought against anyone.
Anyone comparing the newest report to those from previous years might believe they have cause for alarm. For example, in the mid-1960’s, the national homicide clearance rate was approximately 90%. The drop in the percentage of cleared crimes doesn’t mean, however, that police are getting worse at their jobs.
Vernon Gebeth, author of Practical Homicide Investigation, often regarded as the definitive forensic textbook, says that the acceptable standards for charging someone with a crime are much higher now than they were 50 years ago, perhaps too high.
According to Gebeth, many prosecutors now insist that arresting and investigating officers only present them with cases that are “open-and-shut”, with defendants readily willing to accept a quick plea bargain.
Another explanation for the lowered clearance rate might be a result of different priorities and focus from one generation to the next. In the 1970s and 1980s, police departments began to move away from investigative techniques and to focus on strategies for prevention.
Interestingly, advances in criminal science, such as DNA analysis, have greatly improved the tools at the disposal of investigators.
However, those advances have been completely offset by the worsening relationship between police officers and the public. The general public at large is less inclined to cooperate with the police than they were in previous decades.
The regular report only gives national statistics, rather than individual jurisdictions. However, in response to a special request by National Public Radio, the FBI supplied a database of the clearance rates for most local law enforcement jurisdictions across the country.
The searchable database that allows users to compare different cities is not perfect, however. Problems can arise if a city fails to report its statistics, or when the data submitted to the FBI contains too many errors.