The Sunday Oregonian, Feb. 25, 1996, p. D4

1 in 3 violent crimes gets resolved

  • Law enforcement authorities say the clearance rate is not as important as the fact that such cases are declining in Portland

    By Phil Manzano
    of the Oregonian staff

    Only one in three violent crimes reported in Portland is cleared, a review of nine years of Portland crime statistics shows.

    According to state Law Enforcement Data System statistics for 1986 through 1994, only about 30 percent of Portland's reported violent crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, are resolved.

    In 1994, Portland had 8,833 reported murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults. Of those, 3,018, or 34.1 percent, were cleared.

    Those statistics parallel a recent Associated Press study that found Portland was among 25 cities in the country with populations of more than 250,000 with the lowest clearance rates for violent crime in 1994.

    The Associated Press review of FBI statistics crime statistics ranked Portland 16th out of the 25 lowest. Las Vegas had the lowest rate, clearing only 20.7 percent of reported violent crimes.

    Nationally, 45 percent of violent crimes were cleared in 1994. Sixty-four percent of homicides were cleared, and slightly more than half of all rapes and assaults and about 24 percent of all robberies in the country were cleared.

    When looking at the 64 largest U.S. cities with more than 250,000 population, including Portland, the clearance rate for violent crimes in 1994 was 38.9 percent.

    Rates called misleading

    But Lt. C.W. Jensen, the Portland Police Bureau spokesman, said comparing clearance rates among cities can be misleading.

    "Anytime you deal with statistics, and you're comparing jurisdictions, you're going to have some degree of error," Jensen said.

    Police say a clearance rate alone cannot be used as a measure of success or failure because it may say more about how an agency attacks paperwork than how it fights crime.

    Numerous reports where there are no leads or avenue for investigation can be left open, unless a department wants to take the time going through old paperwork, according to Portland Capt. Dennis Merrill, manager of the bureau's planning and support division.

    The FBI collects its data from states through organizations such as Oregon's Law Enforcement Data System. The FBI issues an annual report with a crime rate based mostly on reports of index crime: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and arson.

    The FBI considers a crime cleared when someone is arrested and charged. A crime also can be cleared when police know who committed the crime but can't make an arrest, such as when the suspect has died or the victim refuses to cooperate.

    They calculate the clearance rate by dividing the number of cases cleared by the number of offenses reported in that year.

    But the statistics can get blurry in a hurry. Although reported crimes pertain to one year, cleared crimes can include crimes committed in previous years.

    Jensen said differences in how departments report statistics can affect the results. The FBI agrees and cautions against ranking cities against one another.

    Those kinds of discrepancies trouble statisticians.

    "I don't believe (clearance rates) are accurate," said Elaine DeVore, a uniform crime-reporting specialist for Oregon's Law Enforcement Data System. "Because of the way the whole system works, I don't even look at clearances."

    Still, clearance rates, like arrest rates, help measure a police department's effectiveness, said Vicki Majors, chief of the communications unit in program support for the FBI's criminal justice information division in Washington, D.C.

    FBI officials said the best way to use clearance rates is to examine them over time for general trends.

    Portland's clearance rate for violent crime has hovered in the low-30s for the past nine years. In 1988 it dropped to 27.7 percent, but the following year it peaked at 36.4 percent.

    Some crimes, such as murder, are cleared at higher rates and reflect the amount of work put into the investigation. The 1994 clearance rate for murder in Portland was 67.3 percent.

    In previous years, the clearance rate for murder ranged from 49 percent in 1991 to 81.5 percent in 1989.

    Another indicator of the department's effectiveness is a yearly Portland city audit that tracks the number of major cases, including violent and property crime, assigned to detectives.

    For the past four years, the bureau's detectives have sent almost half of their assigned cases to the district attorney's office for prosecution.

    The rest were determined to be unfounded, suspended or unsolved. A case is suspended when there are no leads, and the case is closed.

    "A beginning point"

    Ellen P. Jean, senior management auditor, said that although there is no simple way to measure police performance, their audit allows at least a look at how well investigations are handled.

    "We think even though there are limitations on what you can infer from the data, the trends can suggest areas where improvement needs to happen or has happened," Jean said. "It doesn't answer why; it's a beginning point."

    The audit also examines staffing, budget, number of reported crimes and average response times to crime.

    Auditors surveyed Portland neighborhoods and found that 70 percent of people surveyed rated police service as good or very good, 84 percent felt safe or very safe walking in their neighborhood, and 40 percent felt safe at night.

    According to Jensen, that survey and falling crime rates are more telling statistics than the clearance rate.

    In the past few years, violent crime has been dropping in Portland as it has in other cities throughout the country. In 1995, the rate stayed even compared with 1994.

    "Our violent crime is down and has gone down over the past few years," Jensen said. "What we really want is less crime."

    Phil Manzano covers crime and prisons for The Oregonian's Crime, Justice & Public Safety Team. He can be reached by phone at 221-8212, by fax at 294-5009 and by email at



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