“Why Are Police So Bad At Their Jobs?”

If you look at crime-solving numbers along with increases in police budgets, very often police budget increases lead to less crimes being solved overall. How can that happen?

There are a couple of good articles out right now looking at the issues surrounding terrible policing, the first being Alexander Sammon’s very good piece over at The American Prospect titled, “Why Are The Police So Bad At Their Jobs?”

For all the panic about a burgeoning nationwide crime wave, only a few types of crime are actually up during the two-plus years since the pandemic began. Murders have increased since 2019, and violent crime, broadly defined, has also inched up slightly over the same period. Property crimes, on the other hand, are down, contrary to what a new wave of lurid videos of “smash and grab” events might indicate. And while all crime, including the murder rate, remains well below 1990 levels, crime today is happening in a more distributed manner across the country. It used to be that Los Angeles and New York accounted for 13.5 percent of all murders nationally; now it’s only 4 percent.

People have every right to be concerned about rising murder rates. But another concerning statistic involves the fact that the nationwide “crime wave,” in both its real and imagined components, has been met with a similar nationwide collapse in “clearance rates,” the rate at which those crimes are “solved” via an arrest and a charge being brought (there are, of course, plenty of reasons to take issue with equating an arrest to a crime being solved—more on that later). According to the most recent data published by the FBI, the rates at which police forces are solving crimes have plunged to historic lows. In the case of murders and violent crime, clearance rates have dipped to just 50 percent, a startling decline from the 1980s, when police cleared 70 percent of all homicides.

It’s not just murder. Manslaughter is down to 69 percent clearance from 90 percent forty years ago. Clearances in assault and rape cases have dropped to 47 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Nonviolent property crimes like burglary (which involves illegally entering a property), theft (which involves taking property from another person), and motor vehicle theft are getting solved at a microscopic 14 percent, 15 percent, and 12 percent, respectively. According to “Crime and the Mythology of Police,” a recent article published in the Washington University Law Review by University of Utah law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman, “on a good year, police solve less than a quarter of reported cases.” And we haven’t seen good years lately.

The Sammon piece goes on to note:

It’s clear that those record police budgets aren’t keeping crime from happening, or else the alleged record crime wave that has been covered breathlessly by local and national media would not be happening. There is evidence that more resources specifically for investigative work can improve clearance rates, but that’s far different from what today’s police budgets prioritize—mostly presence on the streets.

Advocates for those record police budgets, both Democrats and Republicans, have offered virtually no answers as to how they actually intend to solve these crises of policing, and make policing more effective. And while progressives have been harshly criticized and scapegoated for their attitudes toward policing, they’re the only political group not calling for a proven failure of a solution, throwing even more good money after bad.

Another very good piece is written by Alex Pareene over at his Substack titled, “What Do Cops Do?”

Lots of very smart (and even more not-so-smart) people have tried, over the years, to answer the question of what cops are for—whether they exist to keep us safe, to fight crime, to protect property, to enforce racial hierarchies, etc. I pose a simpler question: What do cops do?

Having spent many years observing cop behavior, reading news about cops, and occasionally even asking them for help, I have come to a pretty simple but comprehensive answer: They do what is easy, and avoid what is difficult. Seen through that rubric, much cop behavior suddenly becomes much more explicable.

Of all the improbable things about accused subway shooter Frank James’s last hours of freedom, the weirdest is how easy it is to imagine James still on the run, today, if he’d decided to do almost anything differently. Learning that he phoned in a tip on himself from a McDonald’s, and then that he eventually got tired of waiting there and left, was a sort of sublime punchline to the entire comic manhunt, in which New York City’s enormous and well-funded police department failed at basically every moment to stop or capture a dangerous criminal who literally told them where he was.

Then, a few weeks later, another guy shot and killed a person on the Q. The shooter did so at what I’d consider, strategically, the worst time and place to kill someone on the Q: while it crossed the Manhattan Bridge, giving everyone on board both the time and ability to phone the police and have them ready to apprehend him the moment the train arrived in Manhattan. But when the train pulled into Manhattan, rest assured, the police were (according to one unconfirmed eyewitness) on the wrong platform. That shooter might still be on the lam, too, if he hadn’t turned himself in, an act the city authorities and a fame-seeking pastor with connections to the mayor apparently almost sabotaged.

In between those two shootings, and also before and after them, the NYPD busied itself with clearing homeless encampments. In the denouement to the subway shooting fiasco, the police arrested the panhandler into whose cup the second shooter deposited his gun, for illegal firearms possession. This is my thesis in action: It is difficult to prevent a random shooting. It is difficult to find a gunman. It is difficult to arrest an armed man. It is very easy to arrest an unhoused person.

Both very good articles, if a bit depressing.

Well worth your time.

A homeless encampment in Portland, Ore. Critics of policing say that cops spend far too much time on easy things — say, clearing homeless encampments — and not enough time on catching actual criminals. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Graywalls.)

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