Police departments in a number of U.S. cities — Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans — are receiving increased attention for their failure to clear even half of the homicides that occur in their jurisdiction. And note that to “clear” a case doesn’t even necessarily require that someone be convicted of the crime, but only that either an arrest was made or that the case was “cleared by exceptional means,” meaning that the police identified a suspect, had sufficient evidence to arrest, and knew their location, but encountered a circumstance that prevented them from making the arrest.
Of all the crimes classified as Index I crimes by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, murder and nonnegligent manslaughter typically have the highest clearance rate by far.
Source: FBI: UCR 2017 Clearance
What should be realized is just how much lower current homicide clearance rates are compared to the 1960s and 1970s, even though the number of killings in recent years is roughly on par with the early 70s. As can be seen in the following graph, the number of homicides have gone down since its peak in the 90s, but so has the clearance rate.
Source: Murder Accountability Project
An explanation offered for why this is the case is that a growing proportion of these unsolved homicides are gangland killings where witnesses refuse to talk to the police due to anti-snitching norms, low trust in the police, or fear of reprisal. Indeed, the city of Indianapolis has created a witness protection fund in an effort to get more witnesses to cooperate with police.
Police Aren't Your Friend — Even If You Want to Report a Crime
The hesitancy to cooperate with the police should not be surprising. For one thing, unless you have a personal relationship with police officers, you will always be a potential criminal suspect. At worst, calling the police for help can result in the arrest or death of you or a loved one. With the high potential costs of interacting with the police, individuals on the margin will seek substitutes for ensuring their safety.
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Furthermore, consider the incentives facing witnesses of crimes. It’s not like they can just leave an anonymous tip to the police and be done with it; rather, they will have to endure multiple interviews with police officers and prosecutors and will be expected to testify in court if the necessity arises. This will be a long, drawn-out process during which (and possibly after) one could be a target for reprisal. Government police have no duty to protect individuals (see Warren v. District of Columbia (1981)). The assassination of a witness may even be beneficial from the perspective of increasing clearance rates, as the police would already have a likely suspect.
Government Police Lack Accountability and Incentives
Yet for some reason this state of affairs is tolerated. We have become conditioned to expect such service from government bureaucracies and see it as routine. But imagine if murders happened so frequently on the premises of any private business. We would fully expect that that business would make it their top priority to prevent any further slayings and ensure the public that their place of business is a safe place to be. We wouldn’t even consider the possibility that they would be able to remain in business while being unable to identify the killer in less than half of the cases.
Thus, at issue is not only the ineffectiveness of government policing but the intertwined issue of “public” property. Unlike the common areas provided by the proprietors of private business (such as hotel lobbies, parking lots, and the common areas within shopping malls), there is no residual claimant to the value of common areas in the public domain. They cannot be sold and therefore have no market prices. A private owner seeks to maintain or increase the market value of their property, an aspect of which is the safety of its common areas, because they are the residual claimant of that value. However, this is not the case for areas that are in the public domain. Just like the other aspects of quality, such as the presence of graffiti, trash, atmosphere, and maintenance, tend to deteriorate in areas in the public domain, so does safety.
Entrepreneurs who might have better ideas than the Chicago police on how to increase the safety of public areas are unable to acquire the property, test their ideas, and determine whether those ideas work based on whether they result in profits or losses. Public officials have little incentive to invest in improving the safety of the common areas under their control, as they suffer no losses from letting them deteriorate and reap no profits from improving them. Since the homicides in question are of individuals who have little political influence, they are of little relevance to the immediate concerns of public officials.
In light of this, we should more deeply appreciate what is at stake in slogans like “Privatize Everything.” It is not simply about the nominal transfer of physical objects or land from government control to favored individuals, but transferring them from the realm of non-calculation and fiat to the realm of economic calculation and consumer sovereignty. As a practical matter, it could save many lives.