March 1, 2017

Most violent and property crimes in the U.S. go unsolved

Only about half of the violent crimes and a third of the property crimes that occur in the United States each year are reported to police. And most of the crimes that are reported don’t result in the arrest, charging and prosecution of a suspect, according to government statistics.

In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, 47% of the violent crimes and 35% of the property crimes tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics were reported to police. Those figures come from an annual BJS survey of 90,000 households, which asks Americans ages 12 and older whether they were victims of a crime in the past six months and, if so, whether they reported that crime to law enforcement or not.

Even when violent and property crimes are reported to police, they’re often not solved – at least based on a measure known as the clearance rate. That’s the share of cases each year that are closed, or “cleared,” through the arrest, charging and referral of a suspect for prosecution. In 2015, 46% of the violent crimes and 19% of the property crimes reported to police in the U.S. were cleared, according to FBI data

Reporting and clearance rates for violent and property crimes have held relatively steady over the past two decades, even as overall crime rates in both categories have declined sharply. Between 1995 and 2015, the share of violent crimes reported to police each year ranged from 40% to 51%; for property crimes, the share ranged from 32% to 40%. During the same period, the share of violent crimes cleared by police ranged from 44% to 50%; for property crimes, annual clearance rates ranged from 16% to 20%.

There are several caveats to keep in mind when considering statistics like these. Like all surveys, the BJS survey has a margin of error, which means that the share of violent and property crimes reported to police might be higher or lower than estimated. The FBI clearance rate data, for their part, rely on information voluntarily reported by local law enforcement agencies around the country, and not all departments participate.

The FBI’s clearance rates also don’t account for the fact that crimes reported in one year might be cleared in a future year. In addition, they count some cases that weren’t closed through arrest, but through “exceptional means,” such as when a suspect dies or a victim declines to cooperate with a prosecution.

The two agencies also don’t track all of the same crimes, even though there is substantial overlap. The BJS survey excludes the crime of murder, for example, while the FBI includes it. And BJS counts some crimes – including attempted robberies and simple assaults – that are excluded by the FBI.

Still, looking at the data collected by the two agencies provides a big-picture view of the kinds of crimes that are likeliest to be reported to police and the kinds that are likeliest to be solved. And it shows that there is significant variation in the reporting and solving of crimes, depending on the specific kind of offense.

Of the individual property crimes tracked by BJS, for example, theft is the least likely to be reported to police (possibly because it is also the most common form of property crime). Only 29% of thefts were reported in 2015. By comparison, half of household burglaries (51%) and about seven-in-ten motor vehicle thefts (69%) were reported.

Among violent crimes, just a third (33%) of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police in 2015. Simple assaults were reported 42% of the time, while robberies and aggravated assaults were each reported 62% of the time. A 2012 BJS study found that a victim of a violent crime might choose not to report it to police for a variety of reasons, with the most common being that they dealt with it in another way, such as by reporting it to a manager or school official instead of to law enforcement.

Police clearance rates also vary significantly by crime type. Only 13% of burglaries, 13% of motor vehicle thefts and 22% of larcenies and thefts were cleared in 2015. By comparison, police cleared 29% of robberies, 38% of rapes and 54% of aggravated assaults in 2015.

When it comes to deadly crimes, Chicago has drawn widespread attention recently for its historically low murder clearance rate in 2016. But murder is actually the crime that’s most likely to be solved, at least when looking at national statistics. In 2015, 62% of murders and non-negligent homicides in the U.S. were cleared. That rate hasn’t changed much since 1995, but it’s far lower than in 1965, when more than 90% of murders in the U.S. were solved.

Topics: Criminal Justice, Federal Government, Social Values, Violence and Society

  1. Photo of John Gramlich

    is a writer/editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. T Redd5 months ago

    Real easy – we need more pros in the police field or more advanced or rebuilt police education. The more we educated the police the more they can police.
    The admin policies and program in crime prevention space are old. Retune our protection and we can improve results. Most criminals are not going to change – unless we better educate them before and during prison. Taping the logic center of the brain is how we change people.

    And also – the more video systems you install in your home the more the vandals will avoid it. Add a dog too. Go on walks with your favorite bat. Send the message!

  2. Packard Day5 months ago

    If you wish to greatly reduce being a victim of crime, follow these six simple steps. 1) Do not live in places where crime occurs, 2) Do not work in places where crime occurs, 3) Do not socialize in a places where crime occurs, 4) Do not shop in places where crime occurs, 5) Do not enroll in schools that also accommodate students who are themselves criminals, and finally, 6) Do not interact with known criminals, their friends, or any of their immediate family members who might in anyway be sypathetic to their relative’s anti-social behaviors. Otherwise, good luck and best wishes.

    1. Gina Coman5 months ago

      We live in an affluent, established community within southwest Orlando, Dr. Phillips, next to Bay Hill -after moving twice to get away from negative environment (bullies) of the elementary public schools in good sections of Apopka and Metrowest. I found out parents in our nice neighborhoods would send their kids to private or charter schools. I still wanted my son to have the variety of vocational / magnet programs and community involvement of public school.

      Soon after moving the last time, I find out there are drug dealers nextdoor. It is puzzling how this occurs in an HOA governed community. We live in a nice area surrounding a beautiful lake with wildlife. The homeowner nextdoor, is a harboring grandmother who bails out her son and grandson, has a reverse mortgage, keeps 10 or more residents who often walk around on their phones and host constant traffic day and night. She goes to church and works in the school cafeteria so people are not suspicious. At school, my son says she often yells at the kids while they eat and puts them all on “red” unfairly. Yet, she can’t get her own house in order. Now the police are investigating her after a recent raid (night after Valentine’s) with a dozen police and emergency vehicles from 7 until 9pm while we were studying for a math test and heard screaming. We have had to witness various episodes of police activity, fights and property damage. After a knife fight between 2 girls in the front corner of our yard and other incidents affecting us, I installed security cameras. Last week, one of their young males stupidly pulled out our security light over our driveway recently, thinking it was a camera, caught on video. So tired of such blatant illegal activity and my young, protective son having to make sense of such incidents. I filed a police report as it blew the circuits in my garage and rear lights, as well as the a/c fuse and safety wire. I was heading to the pharmacy ar 5:30 am, to get a cane / walker for my mother’s sudden hip and leg problem as she couldn’t stand/ walk, and the garage door wouldn’t open. Reset breaker only to later realize what happened. My son noticed the wires hanging out and missing light.

      I attended St. Andrews Catholic school, where Trump will soon be visiting, in the late 1970s/1980s, as the city was going to bus me 15 miles across town to a school in bad area. For the past few decades, St. Andrews’ Pine Hills location is a crime-ridden area. It is disheartening to see what it’s become. My mom was a single mother and worked very hard, climbing her way up at an aerospace company, to pay every penny of tuition on her own without any assistance. I never felt the struggle she endured.

      Yet we never had to deal with anything like this. I can’t sleep after all of their parties, xscreaming / noises, marijuana smells and fear from suspicious activity nextdoor. We think it’s more than drug-related, with the girls there. I am afraid for my family and worry that I won’t be around for my son, from the stress or dangers present.

      On top of all of this, are the school pressures of core curriculum and retention related standards tests, it is very stressful and emotional for students and parents. Teachers are not teaching our students to learn, rather they are quickly breezing through subjects to cover many topics for that snapshot of performance. Some Most teacher-parent communication is minimal, unless parents ask about what is being taught. I wish Trump could help us.

    2. Anonymous5 months ago