Is it true that the police solve only 2% of violent crimes?

We had a minor but non-violent kerfuffle in Hyannis recently about a sign in a coffee shop that says: Police only solve 2% of crime. Police supporters demonstrated across the street, and De-fund the Police advocates grabbed signs and defended the coffee shop. A noisy time was had by all.

So where did the claim that police only solve 2% of crimes how from?

Most of it comes from a scholarly analysis of crime rates by Shima Baughman, professor of Criminal Law at the University of Utah. “Crime and the Mythology of Police,” was published in the Washington University Law Review in 2020. Her work has been cited as the source for the claim by publications as diverse as The Conversation, Snopes and Pew Research Center.

Cynthia Stead

Back in 2020, she wrote that Americans who protest police violence have begun to call for cuts or changes in public spending on police. Yet that is not a solution to the heart of the problem.

“But neither these nor other proposed reforms address a key problem with solving crimes,” Baughman wrote in The Chicago Reporter. “My recent review of 50 years of national crime data confirms that, as police report, they don’t solve most serious crimes in America. But the real statistics are worse than police data show. In the US it’s rare that a crime report leads to police arresting a suspect who is then convicted of the crime.”

I will stipulate here that the lack of a conviction may or may not indicate that the wrong party was arrested. The biggest problem is that crimes are never reported to the police in the first place.

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The gap is that fewer than half of serious crimes are reported to the police, according to Baughman, so few if any arrests result.

“In reality, about 11% of all serious crimes result in an arrest, and about 2% end in a conviction,” Baughman wrote in Snopes, “the number of people police hold accountable for crimes — what I call the ‘criminal accountability’ rate — is very low,”

She notes that her date is hard to confirm.

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“The Bureau of Justice Statistics has not reported national conviction rates for serious crimes since 2006 — but in that year, out of all serious crimes reported to the police, only 4.1% of cases ended with an individual convicted in the wake of a reported crime ,” Baughman wrote in The Conversation.

That’s where the slogan from the poster makers in Hyannis comes from. This is the logic. In 2018, the rate of arrest for serious felony crimes reported to police was about 22%. But because twice as many crimes happen as the police find out about, the arrest and conviction rate for all crimes that happened was half what the police reported — just 11%.

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Baughman goes on to write, “Police can only work on solving crimes they are aware of, and can only report statistics about their work based on criminal behavior they know about. But there is a huge slice of crime police never find out about. By comparing surveys of the public with police reports, it is clear that less than half of serious violent felonies — crimes like aggravated assault and burglary — ever get reported to the police.”

While it is an estimate, Baughman’s analysis sounds logical although surveys of the public are not very hard data. A homeless person who is beaten up or who has his wallet taken may or may not even bother to tell the police since he may know his predator. A woman raped may hesitate to complain, especially if her rapist is a predatory landlord.

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Baughman has written, “On a good year, police solve less than a quarter of reported cases (the quoted 2% success rate is for violent felonies only, not police calls overall). Modern-day police are glorified social workers armed with weapons, who are obliged to respond to many community concerns without much training in counseling and are not left a lot of time to spend on crime solving, which is actually what the public thinks that they are and should be doing.”

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Reformers want to move crime funding into the hands of social workers and mental health specialists, citing figures like the City of Los Angeles giving law enforcement 54% of the general fund. And while things such as a mental health court modeled on the existing drug courts is a good idea for some mentally ill perpetrators, the uncomfortable fact is that social services cannot change people until they want to be helped.

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The people abusing various substances in the parking lot of some meetings they attend to get their ticket punched for the court is proof enough of that. It is also unclear if social workers will be willing to roll out of bed at night to respond to violent events.

They are if you accept that only about half of serious felonies are reported, then it follows that if the police are held responsible for crimes they did not know about, their arrest rate is really 4%. And since the 2% is based on convictions, not mere arrests, we can give them imaginary convictions to go with the imaginary arrests, which brings them up to 8% already. Policing is looking better already. Except in coffee shops.

Cynthia Stead is a columnist for the Cape Cod Times and can be contacted at

This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Shima Baughman: Police solve only 2% of reported violent crimes

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