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ANALYSIS:

With a conviction rate of just 2%, improving crime reporting and arrest rates are key to US police reform

SHIMA BARADARAN BAUGHMAN

While a significant proportion of the American public are calling for police reform, more than half of all major crime in the US still goes unreported, and police only make an arrest in around one in five of those cases; Professor Shima Baughman of the University of Utah argues that truly improving policing will require those two gaps to be addressed.

As Americans across the nation protest police violence, people have begun to call for cuts or changes in public spending on police. But neither these nor other proposed reforms address a key problem with solving crimes.

In reality, about 11% of all serious crimes result in an arrest, and about 2% end in a conviction. Therefore, the number of people police hold accountable for crimes is very low.

My recent review of 50 years of national crime data confirms that, as police report, they don’t solve most serious crimes in America. But the real statistics are worse than police data show. In the US it’s rare that a crime report leads to police arresting a suspect who is then convicted of the crime.

The data show that consistently over the decades, fewer than half of serious crimes are reported to police. Few, if any arrests are made in those cases.

In reality, about 11% of all serious crimes result in an arrest, and about 2% end in a conviction. Therefore, the number of people police hold accountable for crimes – what I call the ‘criminal accountability’ rate – is very low.

Many crimes aren’t reported

Police can only work on solving crimes they are aware of, and can only report statistics about their work based on criminal behavior they know about. But there is a huge slice of crime police never find out about.

By comparing surveys of the public with police reports, it’s clear that less than half of serious violent felonies – crimes like aggravated assault and burglary – ever get reported to the police.

Real arrest rates

In 2018, the rate of arrest for serious felony crimes reported to police was about 22%. But because twice as many crimes happen as the police are told about, the arrest rate for all crimes that happened was half what police reported – just 11%.

Police solve very few serious crimes

The official percentage of serious crimes where a person is actually convicted is even lower, though data is hard to confirm. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has not reported national conviction rates for serious crimes since 2006 – but in that year, out of all serious crimes reported to the police, only 4.1% of cases ended with an individual convicted in the wake of a reported crime.

Again, taking into account the fact that twice as many crimes happen, the national conviction rate in 2006 was actually closer to 2%.

Resolving crimes without arrests

There are ways police resolve conflicts and crimes without arresting people – for instance, by mediating neighborhood disputes and directing wayward young people to social services and community programs. But so long as police departments measure success by arrests, that won’t happen more widely.

When considering approaches to police reform, it’s important to remember that Americans still don’t report about half of major crimes – and police don’t solve very many of the cases that do get reported. Truly improving policing will require addressing these two gaps.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


One Response to “With a conviction rate of just 2%, improving crime reporting and arrest rates are key to US police reform”

  1. davidbfpo davidbfpo says:

    A pity the author takes a national viewpoint as I am sure there are significant differences between states and jurisdictions. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, leading to a massive population exodus, the New Yorker magazine (from memory) reported the shock of those who migrated into cities in Texas – where the arrest rate and conviction rate was so much higher than home, so they went back.

    The author cites a 2% detection rate for burglaries, let us not overlook the police here four decades ago claimed a 12% detection rate – which was inflated by custodial “write offs” with the Home Office’s connivance. When that process was stopped the detection rate dropped to 3%.

    In my first-hand observations of American policing, now many years ago, it was abundantly clear ‘order’ came before ‘crime control’. They would not arrest shoplifters for small amounts, just give the suspect a summons and the store would have to prove the offence. Plus they were honest with those reporting if there were lines of investigation and if the report would be investigated – something that a long time to arrive here.

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