Police nationwide solved more murders in 2020 than in any year since 1997, according to data reported to the FBI. Because new homicides increased sharply, the reported rate at which killings were solved, the “clearance rate,” declined to a little below 50 percent, reports the Marshall Project. .The lower clearance rate in 2020 was an extension of a steady drop since the early 1980s, when police cleared about 70 percent of all homicides. In most cases, clearing a crime means at least one suspect was charged with the crime. However, individual agencies have different ways of calculating clearance, with some clearing a case once police identify a suspect, and others if an arrest is made.
From 2019 to 2020, police solved 1,200 more murders, a 14 percent increase. Because the murder total increased by 30 percent, the homicide clearance rate dropped to a historic low. Clearances have long been the primary metric that law enforcement agencies use to assess their effectiveness at solving crime. At least 400 murders cleared in 2020 were solved by “exceptional means.": police believed they had enough evidence, but were unable to make an arrest. This occurs when the suspect has died, can’t be extradited or if prosecutors refuse to press charges. Critics say police use clearance by exceptional means to inflate clearance numbers. Across the U.S., murders and manslaughters are cleared at the highest rates, at 50 percent and 69 percent respectively. Why do police solve only one in two murders? Scholars and police officials say murders are becoming more difficult to investigate, while some victims’ families say police spend too much energy on things other than solving crimes. Philip Cook of the University of Chicago Urban Labs, has been studying clearance rates since the 1970s. He cautioned that the clearance rate decline may not necessarily be a bad thing. “It also could be that the standards for making an arrest have gone up and some of the tricks they were using in 1965 are no longer available,” he said.