Stephanie Abney says she knows who killed her 20-year-old son, Fabian, last August. But she is still waiting for the New York Police Department to solve the case — another unsolved murder in a city grappling with a surge of gun violence amid the pandemic.
As the months wear on since Fabian’s murder, Ms. Abney says she has grown frustrated with the police. “I told the detective, ‘I don’t want you to call me unless you have someone in custody,’” she said in a phone interview. “Fabian wasn’t perfect. But he was an amazing kid.”
The N.Y.P.D. struggled to solve murders and other crimes in the city last year. In the second quarter of 2020, nearly half of all murders went unsolved, N.Y.P.D. data show, and the clearance rate for six other categories of major crime fell from 2019, in some cases sharply.
The percentage of murders that were cleared — that is to say, solved by arrest or other means — fell from 67 percent in 2019 to 50.9 percent for the same period in 2020, a decline of 24 percent. The portion of aggravated assault cases solved by police for that period fell from 69 percent in 2019 to 57 percent, a 17 percent decline. The clearance rate also declined for rape, robbery, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft and, though only slightly, burglary.
The decline in clearance rates took place during one of the most traumatic periods in the city’s history. More than 24,000 residents died of Covid-19, and thousands more were sickened. Police met peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing with excessive force, while small groups of looters were filmed ransacking the city’s upscale shopping districts unchecked.
N.Y.P.D. officials say the department was overwhelmed.
“It was a very, very challenging year,” said the chief of detectives, Rodney Harrison. Mr. Harrison said detectives would continue to work cases to completion, even if it takes longer than in the past. But he said there were several reasons for the decline in case closures.
A steep rise in shootings last year contributed to the decline, Mr. Harrison said, adding that more than half of those shootings were gang-related, making them harder to solve because victims often don’t cooperate with police.
Chief Harrison said that another contributing factor was a change to a New York State law, passed in 2019, that requires prosecutors to hand over any evidence to the defense sooner in the process of a trial. He said that as a result, some witnesses told investigators they were too intimidated to press charges. Many law enforcement officials and groups in New York, including the city police commissioner, Dermot Shea, have publicly lobbied against these changes, as well as other police reforms, even as their own data has at times failed to back up claims that the reforms were leading to increases in crime.
Chief Harrison also said that the department was forced to divert investigators away from cases last spring to staff the large protests that rolled across the city after Mr. Floyd’s death.
The pandemic, as well, posed a historic challenge. Of the department’s roughly 5,000 detectives, around 2,000 were out on sick leave at some point in 2020, N.Y.P.D. officials said. The department put on hold community meetings that police officials say can help officers gain the trust of residents, making it easier to solve cases. Chief Harrison also said that the face masks worn during the pandemic have made it harder to identify suspects.
The challenges facing the N.Y.P.D., and the entire city, last year were indeed extraordinary. But the clearance rate of the city’s police department — the largest in the United States, with an annual budget of roughly $5.4 billion — deserves scrutiny nonetheless. Experts say clearance rates are a key measure of a police department’s performance, along with the rate of crime and police conduct.
One former senior N.Y.P.D. official said in an interview that the police force engaged in something akin to a slowdown last year, shying from enforcement that could lead to steep consequences for individual officers in an environment often hostile toward the police. The department’s leadership was rarely held accountable for mistakes.
“Police departments have tended to place greater emphasis on crime levels, and you certainly can understand that. But the clearance rate can tell us a lot more about the operation of the department,” Charles Wellford, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, told The Times.
Several studies have found that the effectiveness of the police at solving crimes plays a major role in determining whether individuals or communities trust them and report crimes. That research suggests that more closely examining the rate at which police departments solve cases is good public policy.
Erica Ford, the co-founder of LIFE Camp, a nonprofit in Queens focused on violence intervention, said the high number of unsolved cases is another source of trauma in already traumatized communities. “There’s unsolved pain. There’s unsolved hate and anger. That festered, and everything else just continues to breed the disease of violence,” she said. “If we don’t invest in helping people heal then the communities continue to be destroyed.”
Generally, the New York Police Department solves crimes at a clearance rate roughly comparable to the national average. But there is room for improvement: The national average in the United States is low compared with some countries in Europe. In 2019, just over 61 percent of murders were solved in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data. For other crimes, the figures are worse. According to the F.B.I., just over half of aggravated assaults, 33 percent of reported rapes and just over 30 percent of robberies were solved.
Insha Rahman, vice president for advocacy and partnership at the Vera Institute of Justice, said the lower clearance rates in the United States are probably tied to a wide variation in standards, training and resources across police departments, which are controlled locally in the United States.
New York’s police department has been credited with overseeing an impressive decline in crime over the past two decades. But in the last year alone, it has become clear to a growing number of New Yorkers that it is also in need of sweeping reforms and independent oversight. The department’s effectiveness at solving crimes should be part of these conversations, as well as efforts at improving the department over all.
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