clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Are the Police So Bad at Solving Murders?

Derek and Jeff Asher talk about seven possible explanations for this alarming trend before settling on one explanation that may be the most important

Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

Today’s episode is about the story of the moment—gun violence. There’s been a surge of violent shootings, mass shootings, and gun-related murders in the past few years. Today, Derek investigates a mystery behind this surge of violence: Why are the police so bad at solving murders? According to FBI statistics, in the 1960s nearly 100 percent of all murders were “cleared” by police, typically by arrest. In 2020, the clearance rate hit an all-time low of nearly 50 percent. Today, half of the murders in the United States go unsolved. Why? Today’s guest is Jeff Asher, a crime analyst, writer, and cofounder of AH Datalytics, which analyzes data for local government agencies like police departments. We talk about seven possible explanations for this alarming trend before settling on one particular explanation that’s probably the most important.

Thompson and Asher compare the clearance rate for murders in the 1960s to current statistics, and discuss the impact of Miranda v. Arizona on the decreasing clearance rates in police departments over the past half-century-plus.

Derek Thompson: Let’s get right into it. Let’s talk about some of the reasons why this might be happening.

Let’s start with the 1960s, when the clearance rate was sky high, when it seemed like practically every single murder was being solved by police agencies across the country. Was the clearance rate in the 1960s so high because mid-century police were so incredibly good at their jobs? Or was it because of something else, like the fact that these statistics were highly unreliable?

Jeff Asher: I think one of the certainties that everybody that studies this has is that you should not rely on the 1960s data and really much of the 1970s data for reliability. You’re getting 90 percent, 100 percent clearance rate in dozens or hundreds of cities that are reporting lots of murders, places that probably aren’t solving it. Because we know they’re saying what they’re clearing, but they’re not giving any more details on that. There’s a lot of question marks about what exactly these numbers mean.

Thompson: Just to be clear, are you saying the police in the 1960s, 1970s, were therefore much more likely than today to be arresting people who were known to be innocent or very likely to be innocent? Or is it because they were simply making up the statistics when reporting to the FBI?

Asher: Again, it’s hard to say with a ton of certainty which of those answers it is, but I think it’s probably both of them. We know obviously, especially in the pre-Miranda days, even today it’s a problem of arresting people that are innocent of the crime. But especially pre-Miranda, the ‘60s, ‘50s, ‘40s, police departments had a lot less scrutiny on them. It’s hard to say what percentage of these are bad arrests and what percentage of them are bad exceptions, but there’s likely some combination that’s leading to the vast majority of big cities reporting 90 percent, 100 percent clearance rates for 100, 150 murders in a year. It’s implausible that the numbers were as high as they were [being reported] in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. I think that we’ve gotten several decades of much lower clearance rates at a level that is much more believable, I think, that makes us even more certain that those figures that were being reported in the ‘60s and the ‘70s are not that good.

Thompson: Basically, one reason why this is happening is that we are declining from a 60-year high that was basically a fabrication. It was basically a lie. It was either a lie because the police were obviously arresting lots of innocent people, or because they were wildly misrepresenting their statistics to the FBI.

Just one of those statistics ... I think this was from one of our conversations online. It’s just unbelievable. In the 1960s, among agencies dealing with more than 50 murders, a third of them had clearance rates over 90 percent. In 2020, zero agencies dealing with 50-plus murders had a clearance rate over 90 percent. So to put that in a slightly different term, in the 1960s, it was very common for agencies dealing with lots of murders to basically solve all of their murders or at least claim to the FBI that they were solving all their murders. Today, the number of agencies doing that is basically zero. Your first big statistical piece of evidence for what is happening is, look, that was a myth. That was a lie. We should not believe the 1960s, ‘70s numbers. That’s the most important place to start.

To move on to number two, something else happened in the mid-1960s that we absolutely have to talk about, and that is the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona. The Supreme Court says in that case that the Fifth Amendment guarantees citizens certain rights when they’re being questioned by police. This creates the famous norm of Miranda rights, which anybody who’s ever watched a half-second of Law & Order or any crime procedural can tell you, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can be used against you,” et cetera, et cetera.

Jeff, how important is Miranda in helping to explain the declining clearance rate because police, say, had a higher standard in terms of arresting people and getting information from them when they do arrest them?

Asher: It was clearly important. You can see that if you look at the years before Miranda. You’re talking 92 percent, 93 percent, 94 percent, 91 percent, 90 percent, 91 percent murder clearance rates. Then every year after Miranda, you see pretty much a 15- or 20-year decline in the nation’s murder clearance rates. So it was clearly an important factor.

But also, I think that if it was the only factor you would’ve expected, basically, things to have fallen off a cliff and then fallen to a really low level. The fact that it was more of a gradual decline suggests that it was a very good tool, obviously, for improving the way that police departments are going after people that they think did murders and improving the rights of people that may or may not be innocent. But it doesn’t seem like it was the only factor.

It’s one of those things where we really wish we had data from the ‘50s and the ‘40s and could go further back. It’s plausible that there was just something weird in the water in the first couple of years of the 1960s that led to this really high, artificially high, murder clearance rate. Or it’s possible that Miranda was the biggest kick in the butt to get police departments to be more forthright and honest about who was being arrested and what murders were being cleared and led to this gradual decline into what was [around] the 60 percent range for murder clearances for much of the last three decades.

This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Jeff Asher
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify