American violence is resurgent. Gun murders rose to their highest figure on record in 2020, the last year for which we have complete data. While violent crime is rising, America’s police departments are struggling more than ever to bring the perpetrators to justice.
In the 1960s, more than 90 percent of all homicides were “cleared” by police, with an arrest or the identification of a dead suspect. But the clearance rate has declined in each of the past six decades. In the most recent data available from the FBI, the clearance rate hit an all-time low of just over 50 percent. That means that about half of all murders in the United States today go unsolved.
On the latest episode of my podcast, Plain English, I spoke with the crime analyst Jeff Asher to understand what’s driving the long-term decline in the clearance rate and why the police seem so bad at solving new murders. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Derek Thompson: What is the clearance rate?
Jeff Asher: When the FBI calculates clearance rate, the denominator is murders in a given year. The numerator is the number of murders that were solved either by arrest or by exception. “Exception” means they’ve identified the murderer but for whatever reason, they can’t arrest that person, because it’s murder-suicide, or the person died a decade ago, or the killer is already in prison in another state.
Thompson: You’d agree that the fact this number has declined from 90 percent in the 1960s to 50 percent today is a trend that’s worth paying attention to, right?
Asher: Absolutely. In the last two decades, when we have no reason to suspect that there’s been any change in how the data’s reported, we still see a decline. It’s a real trend that police agencies are reporting fewer and fewer murders being cleared each year.
Thompson: Let’s get into the reasons. Was the clearance rate in the 1960s so high because mid-century police were so good at their jobs? Or was it because of something else?
Asher: Most people agree that you should not rely on the 1960s data—or, really, much of the 1970s data. Hundreds of cities were reporting a 90 to 100 percent clearance rate, but these places probably weren’t solving anywhere close to this many murders.
Thompson: I’ve seen statistics showing that before the 1970s, it was very common for police agencies dealing with lots of murders to claim they’d solved practically all of them. Today, the number of agencies claiming that is basically zero. Were the 1960s numbers a total fabrication because police were throwing innocent people in jail, or because they were making up statistics to report to the FBI?
Asher: It’s probably both. In the pre-Miranda era—the ’60s, ’50s, ’40s—police departments had a lot less scrutiny. It's hard to say what percentage of their arrests were bad arrests, or what percentage of them were bad exceptions. But those numbers are just so implausible.
Thompson: You just mentioned a second factor, which is the 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case Miranda vs Arizona. The Supreme Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment guarantees citizens certain rights when they’re being questioned by police. This led to the famous norm of Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent.” How important is Miranda in explaining the declining clearance rate?
Asher: Miranda improved the rights of many people who may or may not be innocent. You can see that if you look at the years before Miranda, you have a 90 percent murder clearance rate, and then after Miranda, there’s a 20 percent decline in the national clearance rates. So it was clearly an important factor. But if it were the only factor, you would’ve expected the clearance rate to fall off a cliff and stay very low. Instead, we saw a gradual decline over 60 years.
Thompson: I think a lot of people who learn that police solve fewer and fewer murders every decade will say that police are simply bad at their jobs. But when we put your first two explanations together, it suggests, again, that a lot of these mid-century convictions were bogus, or attained by unethical practices, and the decline in clearance conceals an increase in police ethics. Is that a fair interpretation?
Asher: I think that’s fair. I think that when we talk about this problem, we really have to look at it in two ways. One is the 60-year decline in clearance since the 1960s. That has a lot to do with false statistics and Miranda. The second is the 30-year decline from the 1990s that we’re currently experiencing. That’s more complicated.
Thompson: This brings us to explanation No. 3: How much of this is about guns?
Asher: In the 1960s, about 50 percent of murders were committed with guns. Today, almost 80 percent of murders are committed with guns. And the share of murders committed by firearms has crept up at a nearly identical rate to the steady decline of murder clearances. Correlation does not equal causation, but if you plot the two together, you see a very strong correlation in the last 40 years.
And the reason is that firearm murders are much harder to solve. They take place from farther away. You often have fewer witnesses. There’s less physical evidence. There’s a great retired LAPD detective, John Skaggs, a character from the terrific book Ghettoside, who describes “ground-ball murders.” Like an easy ground ball in baseball, these are self-solvers. The police walk in and they find the husband with the bloody knife in his hand, and the spouse’s body is below him. The police don’t do anything to solve this; the case solves itself. Most of these self-solvers are non-firearm murders. So a higher share of gun violence can lead to a lower clearance rate.
Thompson: I want to move on to explanation No. 4, which is higher standards from district attorneys and juries. Is it possible that in an age of DNA evidence and true-crime podcasts and CSI shows, juries expect more physical evidence, which raises the bar for detectives? Has the evidence standard increased in the last few decades?
Asher: I think this theory makes sense. I want to be clear that the clearance rate has nothing to do with whether the DA accepts the charges. But prosecutors want to win. And if they’ve been refuted by jurors because the bar is higher, it would make sense that [their reluctance gets passed down to] the police. Cops are less likely to make an arrest if they don’t think they have the evidentiary base that the DA will accept. That said, we don’t have great data to know for sure if this is a big deal.
Thompson: Explanation No. 5 is racism. I’ve seen evidence that the clearance rate for Black victims in the last few decades has gone down while the clearance rate for white victims has gone up. That is, the cops are better at solving crimes when the victim is white, and as Black Americans make up a larger share of murder victims, the police solve fewer crimes.
Asher: There is obviously racism in the criminal-justice system and in policing. But are police getting more racist every decade, for 60 years? I don’t know. We don’t have clearance rates broken down by race as clearly as you suggest. It’s true that there has been a huge surge in Black shooting victims since 2020. That might help explain some of the decline last year. But it doesn’t explain decades’ worth of declines.
Thompson: How do you feel about this explanation: As Black victims of gun murders have increased as a share of all gun-murder victims, the poor relations between Black Americans and police officers have made it harder for the police to get evidence about who might have committed these murders. And therefore, the impression, often accurate, of police being racist feeds into Black Americans being less responsive to and less cooperative with police, which then feeds into a lower clearance rate for Black victims of gun homicides.
Asher: That’s the entire thesis of Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. I think that it’s certainly plausible. There are certain neighborhoods where the police just don’t solve murders. In New Orleans, 90 percent of murders in the French Quarter are going to be solved. A mile away in the Seventh Ward, maybe 15 percent of those cases are being solved. The geography of murder is very important. Certain communities don’t trust the police. They don’t trust the state. They take things into their own hands. And it sort of creates a cycle of violence that’s very difficult to interrupt, because you don’t have that initial layer of trust in the police to have a monopoly on violence.
Thompson: I wonder if some police are just not doing their jobs. Is it possible the quality of detective work is just much worse than it used to be? Police today spend much of their time clearing homelessness or responding to mental-health crises in downtown areas. That’s not being a detective. That’s being a social worker with a gun in your pocket.
Asher: This isn’t something we can measure in a satisfying way. But something we’ve seen is police numbers dwindling or flatlining while violence has increased. Let’s say you have 30 detectives who are investigating 150 murders. That’s five murders per detective, which is the standard. But if violence doubles and some officers leave to retire or go work in the suburbs, 250 murders among 25 officers is 10 cases per person. Now you’re going to have a harder time solving murders. And I think that you’re probably seeing some of that, especially since 2020.
Thompson: I count six possible explanations for the decline in the clearance rate. One: The 1960s numbers were bunk. Two: The effects of Miranda. Three: Guns. Four: Higher standards from juries and DAs. Five: Racism and distrust between police and Black communities. Six: Fewer and overextended police officers. With the understanding that crime data is imperfect and that these are all hypotheses, which one explains most of the decline in clearance over the last 30 years?
Asher: It’s the guns. The nature of murder in America is changing in ways that we don’t really talk about enough. You’ve got a bunch of cities where firearms make up 80 to 90 percent of murders today. That is the main driver. Guns make murders much harder to solve, and it leads to lower clearance rates everywhere.