How Effective Are Police?

A 2020 paper published in the Alabama Law Review and written by Shima Baughman, professor of law at the University of Utah, puts paid to the illusion that cops solve crimes.

TV cops solve crimes. Real cops, not so much.

From the Abstract (emphasis added):

In recent years, the national conversation in criminal justice has centered on police. Are police using excessive force? Should they be monitored more closely? … The implied core question across these national debates is whether police are effective at their jobs. Yet we have not explored how effective police are or determined how best to measure police effectiveness.

This article endeavors to measure how effectively police perform at their core function — solving crime. The metric most commonly used to measure police effectiveness at crime solving is a “clearance rate”: the proportion of reported crimes for which police arrest a person and refer them for prosecution. But clearance rates are inadequate for many reasons, including the fact that they are highly manipulable. 

This Article therefore provides a set of new metrics that have never been used systematically to study police effectiveness — referred to as “criminal accountability” metrics. Criminal accountability examines the full course of a crime to determine whether police detect and ultimately resolve committed crime. Taking into account the prevalence and the number of crimes police solve, the proportion of crimes solved in America is dramatically lower than we realize. Only with a clearer conversation, rooted in accurate data about the effectiveness of the American police system, can we attempt a path toward increased criminal accountability and public safety.

She goes on to note that “the scholarly discussion has focused on how police are doing crime solving: With too much force? With the right monitoring? With proper technology? These discussions assume that police are solving crimes. The prior scholarship has also tackled police performance in specific arenas but has not examined how to measure whether police are effective at their jobs.”

The goal of the paper, then, is to answer the question, “What is the best way to determine police effectiveness?”

As the Abstract notes, using “clearance rates” is misleading. Clearance rate is defined as “the proportion of reported crime for which police arrest a person and refer them for prosecution.” Part of the problem with this metric is the amount of data it misses. For example:

How many individuals are victims of a crime but failed to report it to police? How often do police arrest the right people? Which crimes are police most likely to make arrests for? How many police clearances result in a conviction? How many crimes did police not make arrests for but resolved in other ways? None of this information is tracked [by the “clearance rate” metric].

The paper concludes that police, indeed, are remarkably ineffective at solving crime, their supposed primary function.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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