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JustFacts: What Clearance Rates Say About Disparities in Crime and Prosecution

Some crimes and types of crimes are harder to solve than others.

  • Matthew Friedman
  • James Cullen
September 30, 2016

Whenever the FBI releases its Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), keen atten­tion is paid to any change in viol­ent crime (such as murder), and prop­erty crime (such as burg­lary).

Less atten­tion is paid to another figure repor­ted in the UCR: the “clear­ance” rate for crimes. In the simplest terms, a crime is considered “cleared” when it has been solved. Eval­u­at­ing the rate at which police “clear” crimes is often used as a meas­ure of their effect­ive­ness.

But clear­ing a crime does­n’t neces­sar­ily mean a suspect has been arres­ted. A crime can also be repor­ted “cleared” when a suspect has been iden­ti­fied, though the suspect may have escaped the juris­dic­tion, died, or other­wise evaded arrest.

As the chart below shows, clear­ance rates vary widely by crime. A closer look reveals they vary by other factors as well.

In  2015, for example, officers respon­ded to 14,392 homicides in the United States and repor­ted “clear­ing” 61.5% over the same period. That means police iden­ti­fied the suspect in about 8,851 murders — similar to previ­ous years, and relat­ively high compared to other crimes.

Why is the clear­ance rate for murders so high compared to, say, burg­lar­ies? It may be that police depart­ments devote signi­fic­ant resources to solv­ing crimes involving viol­ence and loss of life (note that the clear­ance rate for aggrav­ated assault is also relat­ively high). Or perhaps murders are easier to solve than prop­erty crimes or more likely to have witnesses.

Despite the focus on solv­ing crimes where an indi­vidual perishes, some murders still manage to end up unsolved. What may be surpris­ing is that there are signi­fic­ant dispar­it­ies even within “un-cleared” homicides.

For one, accord­ing to the FBI’s expan­ded homicide data from 2014, police were not able to identify key traits of the offender, or even describe the rela­tion­ship between the victim and the killer, in 40 percent of homicides where the victim was black. That’s nearly double the rate for white victims, which stands at around 22 percent. 

Let’s take a closer look at the data. Black victims are also more likely to be killed by a fire­arm than all other types of weapons combined. Accord­ing to FBI data, in 2014, 78 percent of black homicide victims were killed by guns, compared to 57 percent of white victims.

Could this have some impact on the clear­ance rate dispar­ity? Perhaps. Fire­arms are the most common means of commit­ting a homicide, serving as the murder weapon for around 68 percent of murders involving black or white victims in 2014. As it turns out, gun homicides are also more diffi­cult to solve. Regard­less of race, gun homicides repres­ent a larger share of the crimes where a perpet­rator is not iden­ti­fied.

It’s clear that the type of murder weapon employed is an import­ant vari­able to account for and could partially explain why homicides of black victims are solved less frequently than those of white victims. Of course, there are likely other explan­a­tions for the appar­ent racial dispar­ity in clear­ance rates, too — reas­ons that call for more in-depth analysis.

But if the data are any guide, focus­ing on curb­ing gun viol­ence could signi­fic­antly increase the number of killers brought to justice, while decreas­ing the appar­ent dispar­ity in justice received by black and white homicide victims.