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Clearance rates are not only good indicators of how well a police agency investigates and solves crimes but they're also strong predictors of future spikes or dips in crime. "Investigative work, the search for and arrest of perpetrators of past crimes, is also one of the most effective ways to prevent future crimes," Patrick Harnett, a former high-ranking official in the New York City Police Department, wrote in a study about the Oakland Police Department in late 2006. Harnett, who was commissioned by former Mayor Jerry Brown, believes that putting criminals behind bars stops them from committing more crimes and leads to a lower crime rate, while the failure to catch them leads to a higher crime rate.
In Oakland, the numbers support Harnett's assertion. During the past decade, whenever the city's clearance rate has declined, homicides have gone up the following year, and vice versa. In fact, during the past decade, every time the department's clearance rate decreased by at least 5 percent from the previous year, the number of homicides increased the following year. And every time the clearance rate improved by at least 5 percent from the previous year, the number of killings dropped the following year. This phenomenon occurred seven times in the past eleven years.
After Oakland's ability to solve crime started to worsen, the number of killings in the city jumped sharply. From 2005 through 2007, Oakland averaged 119 homicides a year compared to an average of 87 from 1997 through 2004. Last year, the city had 119 homicides and is on track to exceed that number this year.
Oakland's clearance rate also has declined for all violent crimes over the past decade, and is lower than other large California cities. From 2005 through 2007, it was just 24 percent, while San Francisco's was 27 percent; Sacramento, 39 percent; Long Beach, 48 percent; and Fresno, 49 percent. Violent crimes include homicides, rapes, robberies, and aggravated assaults. The number of violent crimes in Oakland also has jumped dramatically in the past two years, and now is nearly as high it was in the mid-1990s. Of the other four cities, only Sacramento experienced a similar recent increase.
So what's going on in Oakland? In an interview last week, Oakland's Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan rejected a linkage between the department's declining clearance rates and skyrocketing crime, and instead blamed several other factors. Jordan oversees the department's entire investigations bureau. Increased crime, he said, has been caused by myriad societal problems, from the downturn in the economy, to the city's poor school system, and the high number of ex-felons living in Oakland. "We have a high concentration of parolees and people on probation in the city," he noted.
As for the declining clearance cases, he blamed the no-snitching culture of today's youth. "We have a very, very difficult time convincing people to talk to police," he said. "It makes it very difficult for us to solve cases." Jordan also criticized the FBI's definition of clearances, saying that internally, the department also considers a case cleared when it has identified a prime suspect, but doesn't have enough evidence for an arrest and conviction. However, those types of "clearances" are not allowed under FBI rules.
But Jordan's explanations don't hold up under scrutiny. Refusing to snitch is not a problem unique to Oakland. Plus, other police agencies also are prohibited from calling a no-arrest case "cleared" and their clearance rates are better than Oakland's. Moreover, Jordan's contention that cases in which investigators haven't gathered enough evidence for an arrest should then still be counted as solved just enshrines failure as success. His reasoning also doesn't explain why Oakland's clearance rates are so much lower than they used to be. After all, the definition of a clearance is the same as it was a decade ago when the department used to do a good job solving crimes. The same is true of Jordan's explanations for today's high crime rate. Oakland has been home to lots of ex-cons for decades, and its public school system has long been among the worst in the state. And finally, crime spiked in Oakland well before the housing bubble burst and the current recession began.
According to Harnett, the expert hired by Jerry Brown, Oakland's investigative unit is incapable of solving most crimes because it's woefully understaffed and overwhelmed, leaving it no time to clear difficult cases. "The lieutenants who manage the department's investigative units are forced to triage cases, assigning for investigation only those cases that present a very strong probability of being solved," he explained in his 2006 report.
So how understaffed is Oakland? Plenty. It has, for example, the same number of homicide investigators as Sacramento — ten. That may seem reasonable considering the two cities are similar in size and have a similar number of total sworn personnel. But Oakland is a much more dangerous city. Sacramento has averaged just 51 homicides per year from 2005 through 2007 compared to Oakland's 119. In other words, the workload of each Oakland homicide investigator is more than double of those in Sacramento. "It would be extremely difficult under those circumstances to expect a high clearance rate," said one California law enforcement officer, who asked not to be named because he didn't want to criticize the Oakland Police Department publicly. "With that staffing and number of homicides, I don't know how the detectives would find time to sleep." Not surprisingly, Sacramento solved 21 more homicide cases than Oakland from 2005 through 2007.
In an interview last week, Chief Tucker acknowledged that his investigative team is overworked. That would have changed if voters had approved the parcel tax last month. "We're really skinny over there," he said. "If Measure NN had passed, we would have really beefed up the investigative unit." Jordan said that under optimal conditions Oakland's homicide team would have twenty investigators.
Now that the entire department has more than 800 officers, up from about 730 at the beginning of 2008, Jordan said it plans to add four investigators to the investigative unit in the coming weeks, bringing the total to 37. In addition to the ten investigators in homicide, there are currently just seven detectives investigating more than 3,600 aggravated assaults a year; only nine detectives investigating about 3,500 robberies annually; and just seven detectives handling more than 16,000 felony property crimes each year, including burglary, grand theft, and auto theft. Jordan said he has not decided where to assign the new officers, but he ruled out homicide because that unit only accepts veteran cops with years of investigative experience.
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