In 2020, after the police-involved killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, millions of Americans took to the streets for months to demand police reform. Almost three and a half years later, a report of national crime data, compiled and published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, indicates that police departments nationwide have changed — for the worse. The data says cops are solving fewer crimes today than they did then.
“The UCR is sort of the best source of crime data that’s released each year,” crime data analyst Jeff Asher tells Vox. “It provides a trove of information on what’s happening nationally.”
Asher says UCR data tells us things like whether murder and other violent crime rates are down; the level of staffing in law enforcement; and the percentage of crimes solved (also known as clearance rates).
“The first thing I look at is the murder clearance rate,” Asher says. “And the murder clearance rate fell from above 60 percent in 2019 to just 52 percent in 2022.”
Asher tells Vox’s daily news podcast, Today, Explained, that murder clearance rates aren’t the only figure that fell: “It was really across the board to some of the lowest levels ever reported for every crime.”
According to Asher’s analysis of the UCR data, “For all violent crimes, the clearance rate went from almost 46 percent in 2019 to 36.7 percent in 2022. The same thing happened with property crimes. Property crime went from a 17 percent clearance rate to a 12 percent clearance rate from 2019 to 2022. And so you look at crime by crime, and with the exception of burglary, every crime has seen really a nosedive in the last three or four years.”
So why are fewer crimes being solved by police departments? Asher says it’s harder to explain the trend than to describe it. But he thinks the data may offer some insights. “There was a substantial decline in the summer of 2020,” he says. “We can relate the drop in clearance rates to everything that’s happened in American criminal justice, in policing, in attitudes toward police since the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020.”
Asher also points out that 2020 began an exodus of officers leaving law enforcement. “The majority of big cities had fewer officers in 2022 than they did in 2019,” Asher says. “If you have fewer officers, you have fewer resources to dedicate to solving crime, which means lower clearance rates. And we do have lots of research that shows that.”
Noel King, host of Today, Explained, wanted to know what law enforcement thought about Asher’s analysis of the FBI’s report. How are officers responding to the suggestion that they’re not doing their jobs as well as they once were? So she talked with Dallas Police Chief Edgardo “Eddie” Garcia, who is also president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
A partial transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Listen to the full conversation wherever you find podcasts.
Chief Garcia, we’re chatting today because of an annual FBI report that comes out in the fall. One of the data points in that report has to do with the solve rates for violent crimes. And this year, what the data suggests is that that solve rate fell from about 46 percent in 2019 to about 36.7 percent in 2022, meaning fewer violent crimes are being solved. What do you think is happening here? What do you think is causing this drop?
Chief Eddie Garcia
I mean, the one thing that we have to say is that solving a violent crime is not an easy task. And as departments face staffing shortages now, I know that there are other chiefs [across the nation], as am I, that are very reticent to move bodies out of patrol, as that’s the number one priority of any department. So you have amazing detectives doing an amazing job that are working a lot. They are overworked in some areas. As departments face staffing shortages, we always look at that patrol, there’s no question about it. But, you know, most of us also have a lot of holes to fill in our detective bureaus. And so that is one of the major issues. I believe that if some agencies are seeing drops in their solve rates, I believe we could start there.
Why do you think you’re having staffing problems, personnel shortages?
What is often not talked about is really in these last few years, beginning in 2020, honorable police officers have not felt supported. They have not felt supported by their community at times. They haven’t felt supported by their administration at times, and they haven’t felt supported by their city governments. There’s probably not another profession of honorable men and women, and I say honorable because I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every police officer deserves to wear this uniform. They do not. But most of our men and women that are working in this profession are honorable men and women. And I don’t care what field you go into, if you don’t feel supported, if people don’t honor the work that you do and sacrifice in your life every day, you know, I don’t know if there are many other professions that have had a defund movement. [And] that’s going to have an impact on honorable men and women joining any profession, much less law enforcement. That’s important.
What do you hear specifically from officers? I imagine you sit and you talk to them and you’re alluding to a couple of things. Some real issues have arisen since 2020. The nation goes through an uprising. We see calls to abolish the police altogether. We see slogans like ACAB. When you sit with officers and they tell you it’s harder, what are the specifics? What are they talking about?
I started 32 years ago. And I’ll tell you what, being a police officer 32 years ago is different than it is today. There’s a lot more on officers’ plates, quite frankly. Officers are asked to do too much, to deal with a lot of the social ills that are impacting crime. And officers want to get compensated fairly. They feel they’re overworked, oftentimes. And so those are some of the issues that I hear.
But, you know, one of the disconnects that I really believe is occurring now, and I say this because I’m not a stay-in-the-office chief, but a lot of this division is not being driven by neighborhoods. There’s not a neighborhood in the city of Dallas — and I can speak for my other colleagues as well, regardless of language spoken, racial makeup, or economic status — that I have ever heard the words, “We want to see less of you.” It never happens.
And in fact, oftentimes it’s our communities of color that plead with me for more officers. I have invited people to come to community meetings with me where they will hear my community let me have it if they are not seeing patrol officers and presence in their neighborhood. And oftentimes it’s our most vulnerable communities, and it’s not often, but sometimes they’ll accuse police departments of providing more police services to other, more affluent areas than the areas of need. And so there’s a real big disconnect. And I think people need to get out of their offices and go into neighborhood meetings with police chiefs to hear the same information that I hear at every community meeting that I go to.
I think the reason that FBI data struck a chord, Chief Garcia, is that there is a sense in this country, in parts of this country, that police have stopped doing their jobs. Even if you understand why, you kind of feel like the police are doing less now, if morale is low, that certainly can happen. Do you think there’s any truth to the sentiment that police are pulling back because they feel overworked, they feel disrespected? And they feel like doing this job is just going to get you in trouble? I mean, what are you hearing?
You hit the nail on the head. That is absolutely an issue. They want to ensure that when chaos ensues, they’re going to be judged fairly. And one of the dynamics, if the pendulum swings too far, oftentimes officers will feel, is this worth it? Listen, I’ll tell you this, proactive policing is absolutely necessary. I can make an officer answer a 911 call for service, that I can do, but I can’t make officers be proactive. And the only reason honorable men and women will be proactive is if they feel supported. So when officers don’t feel supported, when they don’t have morale, what it causes oftentimes is a community to go to their corner, the police go to their corner, and yet there’s no one in the middle keeping us safe.
And those are things that come not just from my officers or other people that I’ve spoken to, but from community members themselves. And so certainly that exists. You know, we have a crime plan here in the city of Dallas and in our offices. I go around the country and I talk to individuals about what we’re trying to do differently in Dallas with the crime plan. The first thing that I say to people is, “Please do not screw up a perfectly good crime plan [by not having] your finger on the pulse.” [If] your men and women don’t feel supported, if they don’t feel they’re going to be treated fairly once chaos ensues, there’s no crime plan that’s going to work. So your point is 100 percent valid. And that’s something that we need to work hard on.
What do you think it’s going to take to turn this around?
It takes strong leadership. It takes strong support from city government. I have a very supportive city council, which absolutely is necessary. I have an incredibly supportive city manager. And quite frankly, I have arguably the most supportive mayor of public safety I think there is in the country. And it starts with that. It starts with great community trust and great community understanding. We have to build the department. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we need to grow. Nothing will ever amount to having a human being sitting at a desk, sitting in a patrol car, offering that and providing that service. So we need to grow and solve rates will then increase. And to your point, 90 to 100 percent [solve rates] is definitely something we should strive for. But it’s not necessarily realistic.
There are several reasons. Communities don’t speak to us. One of the reasons [they don’t speak to us] is lack of accountability in the system, in keeping violent criminals in custody. We have witnesses in the city of Dallas that fear for their lives when they come forward, only to see the individual that they came forward to be a witness against — to see them back out on the street does not lend credibility to the system. And it certainly doesn’t make them feel safe when they come forward. So we have that to worry about, which is a humongous issue. We need accountability. And that’s hugely important. That trust the community has in its police department will have people come forward to speak to us about what’s occurring because we can’t solve these crimes alone oftentimes. You know, the community is not a monolith. Obviously, we have to get better as professionals. Little question about it. But in my experience, at nearly 32 years and now going into the new year, I’ll be in my ninth year as a police chief, whether in California, here in Dallas, our communities have never and still do not want us to go away.