Despite Big Budgets, Police Are Catching Very Few Real Criminals
Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.
In Tuesday’s debate, former vice president Joe Biden declared he was opposed to the “defund the police” movement. In a general election, this is not a terribly bold statement on Biden’s part. According to numerous polls, the public has little enthusiasm for sizable cuts to police agencies.
Most people, it seems, recognize that some sort of security or law enforcement agency plays a valuable role in most communities.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that this crime-fighting agency need necessarily be a monopolistic organization, or a government agency. Unfortunately, however, it is nowadays generally accepted as a given that law enforcement is a job for a government bureaucracy funded by taxes and with no legal competitors.
But whatever one may think are the advantages of a government-controlled police agency, we always encounter a big problem with government monopolies: they offer lower-quality services at a higher price than would be the case with private firms.
It should not be shocking, then, that in a new and lengthy article forthcoming from the Alabama Law Review, the author found that police agencies have a very poor record in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice.
A Lack of Police Effectiveness and Accountability
It is remarkably difficult to find data on how skilled and effective police are at finding and arresting guilty parties, and how often these arrests lead to a conviction.
All too often, researchers and journalists end up relying on “clearance rates,” which are the rate at which police make arrests for reported crimes and turn arrested suspects over to prosecutors. In some cases, the police may be said to have “cleared” a case when a suspect dies before he can be arrested or if the police have determined the case has been resolved in some other way. Police agencies themselves often publish this information, and these numbers can be easily manipulated, because the police determine if a case has been resolved based on their own judgment about a suspect whose guilt has never been proven.
Thus, more adroit readers will immediately begin to see some of the problems with using clearance rates as a measure of police effectiveness. Just because the police make an arrest doesn’t mean they’ve caught the guilty party. Just because police make an arrest doesn’t mean the police have collected enough evidence to lead to a verdict of guilt.
Moreover, clearance rates rarely attempt to take into account crimes that occur but are never reported to police. (These numbers are certainly not negligible.)
Yet even when using this clearance data published by the police themselves, we're left with a picture of police mediocrity where fewer than half of violent crimes lead to any sort of satisfactory resolution.
But new research from University of Utah legal scholar Shima Baradaran Baughman suggests that even these traditional clearance rate–based numbers of police “success” are actually much too high. If we measure police effectiveness considering “the overwhelming number of crimes not reported to police, individuals who are apprehended but not turned over to prosecutors, [and] crimes resolved without arrest through alternative means,” the numbers look very different. Taking factors outside the usual clearance rate data into account, Baughman concludes “police are ineffective at solving major crimes [and] police are much less effective than we might think at solving all major crimes, and have not significantly improved in the last thirty years.”1
When it comes to reported crimes, the statistics are grim enough:
In 2006, there were 14,948 reported murders and of those, 8,845 people are convicted (federal and state), so that is a total of 59% of murders resulting in a conviction. So, in other words, 41% of murderers got away with murder. For other crimes, it is a lot worse. If there were a total of 760,753 reported aggravated assaults in 2006 and 101,108 aggravated assault convictions, that means 13% of individuals who committed assault are held responsible, or in other words 87% of people who commit aggravated assault are not convicted of it.2
But these are only reported crimes. Surveys, on the other hand, have long suggested that it is common for victims to not report crimes to police. And in many cases—35 to 40 percent of the time— victims fail to report crimes to police precisely because “they believed that police would not or could not help.”3
It is estimated, for instance, that while the overwhelming majority of homicides are reported through official channels, only 17 percent of rapes were reported in 2018, and fewer than half of robberies were reported to authorities.
Once these “known crimes” are included, we find police clearance rates are far lower:
Starting in 1990, the overall true percent of crimes cleared was 10.03%. In 1998, the true percent cleared was 7.92. For 2004 and 2006, the overall true percent cleared was 9.26% and 9.19% respectively. For 2009, police improved clearance to 12.10% of overall crimes, and in 2014 it was 11.71%. Finally, in 2018 the overall true percent cleared went back down to 10.61%. Overall, true clearance rates in the last thirty years remained around 10%.
Conviction rates are even worse. When examining the total number of convictions against the total number of known crimes, Baughman finds:
The true conviction rate was 1.65% in 1990, 1.35% in 1998, 1.81% in 2004, and 1.95% in 2006. That is to say that the conviction rate for the major crimes in these sample years is less than 2% per year.4
This “true conviction rate” was by far the highest for homicide: 59 percent. But from there, convictions drop off precipitously. Only 12 percent of rapes and only 7 percent of aggravated assaults led to convictions.
Police agencies, of course, can’t be found totally at fault for a lack of convictions, but they do play a major role in building a case and providing prosecutors with necessary evidence. Apparently, the police are failing to do so in a great many cases.
Taxpayers Are Paying Big Money for Few Convictions
And how much are the taxpayers paying for these “services”? Plenty.
In a recent article for Vox, Sean Collins examined the large and growing number of dollars handed out by officials to police departments. Yet, in spite of the taxpayers paying ever-larger sums for police departments, “clearance rates have remained fairly stable for several decades despite increases in police budgets…suggesting that giving departments more money does not necessarily result in better outcomes.”
Moreover, Collins finds:
According to the most recent data available from the US Census Bureau, in 2017, state and local governments spent $114 billion on police forces and $78.8 billion on prisons. Policing can take up a large chunk of city budgets; for instance, Chicago planned to spend $2 billion, 15 percent of its budget, on its police force in 2020.
Meanwhile, police departments nationwide have been paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to settle legal cases stemming from police brutality incidents.
Taxpayers Are Getting Ripped Off
In spite of all of this, American residents regularly report a high degree of confidence in police departments. According to a 2020 survey by Pew Research, “A 58% majority of Americans say police around the country do an excellent or good job of protecting people from crime, which is little changed from the share who said this four years ago (62%).”
Yet high costs and poor performance are exactly what we should expect from a monopolistic government agency that faces no competition and can rely on a regular infusion of tax dollars.
In a private marketplace, a firm that provides so little “bang for the buck” is likely to be quickly replaced by competitors. The presence of multiple firms in the “policing” industry would drive down prices while firms sought to advertise their abilities to “get the bad guys” at higher rates than their competition.
Some might argue, of course, that a system of competing private security firms is undesirable and impractical, and insufficiently responsive to “the public.” This notion, however, must be weighed against the apparent fact that the status quo police departments have little to show for themselves in terms of bringing criminals to justice—even with enormous taxpayer-funded budgets.
On the other hand, current political realities do not appear to be a sizable problem for these police agencies. The current debate over police powers and police effectiveness is concentrated on police treatment of suspects and police brutality, and not on the track record police have in finding and arresting thieves and murderers.
Even this can be traced to the monopoly enjoyed by police organizations. Public-employee unions and immunity protection for police have done much to shield police from public accountability. Private sector security workers enjoy no such advantages.
Yet it remains unclear that all these efforts by police to harass and investigate residents for petty infractions like drug possession and jaywalking do anything to assist the police in addressing more serious criminal acts like robberies and rapes. Police departments devote enormous sums to tracking down small-time drug dealers and traffic law violators. Less than 5 percent of police staff in many cities are devoted to investigating homicides. Meanwhile, a majority of violent crime victims will never see justice done for the crimes they have endured.
- 1. Shima Baradaran Baughman, "How Effective Are Police? The Problem of Clearance Rates and Criminal Accountability," Alabama Law Review (forthcoming). See also the working paper of the same name (working paper, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper no. 362), http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3566383.
- 2. Ibid., p 49.
- 3. Ibid., p 22.
- 4. Ibid., p 51.