Property Crime Clearance in Small Jurisdictions

Date01 December 2018
Published date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Property Crime Clearance in
Small Jurisdictions: Police and
Community Factors
Jeffrey J. Roth
Research on the factors that influence crime clearance rates has primarily studied violent crimes in
large cities. However, property crimes are among the most commonly occurring and least fre-
quently cleared offenses, and the majority of police departments in the United States serve small
jurisdictions. Thus, this study undertook an examination of the predictors of clearance rates for
burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft in a sample of agencies serving populations of 50,000 people or
fewer. Independent variables included both policing factors (e.g., workload, funding, broken win-
dows arrests) and social disorganization indicators (e.g., residential instability, poverty). Negative
binomial regression analyses revealed variation in the significance of the predictors across the three
crimes. Additionally, many predictors found to be influential in prior work were insignificant in this
study, which suggests differences in the nature of crime clearance between large cities and smaller
jurisdictions and a need for further research in this area.
clearance rates, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft
In the United States, a crime is considere d cleared when an offender is arrested, char ged, and
delivered to the courts for prosecution or when there is sufficient evidence to arrest a person but
unusual circumstances (e.g., death of the suspect) prevent that from occurring (U.S. Department of
Justice, 2016). The percentage of crimes that are cleared—the clearance rate—is commonly used as
an indicator of the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies by policy makers, the media, and
criminologists (Pare & Ouimet, 2004; Worrall, 2016). Low clearance rates can have a variety of
adverse effects, including decreased trust in law enforcement, greater fear of crime, poor morale
among officers, and reduced deterrence (Lockwood, 2014; Roberts, 2008). Thus, researchers have
done much to assess the incident details, policing factors, and community traits that affect clearance
rates (Cordner, 1989; Doerner & Doerner, 2012; Jang, Hoover, & Lawton, 2008; Litwin, 2004;
Litwin & Xu, 2007; Lockwood, 2014; Ousey & Lee, 2010; Puckett & Lundman, 2003; Roberts &
Roberts, 2016; Worrall, 2016). However, the body of research on crime clearance is imbalanced in
Penn State University—New Kensington, New Kensington, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeffrey J. Roth, Penn State University—New Kensington, 3550 7th Street Road, New Kensington, PA 15068, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2018, Vol. 43(4) 477-493
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016817752434
two ways. One, these studies have typically focused on violent crime, especially homicide (Doerner
& Doerner, 2012; Taylor, Holleran, & Topalli, 2009). This is problematic, given the differences
between violent and property offenses. Violent crimes are more likely to have witnesses because
they require an encounter between victim and offender (Pare, Felson, & Ouimet, 2007). Addition-
ally, they tend attract publicity and so may receive greater investigative attention (Pare et al., 2007;
Puckett & Lundman, 2003). Unsurprisingly, then, violent crimes have higher clearance rates than
property offenses. Over half of homicides and aggravated assaults are cleared in the United States,
compared to less than one quarter of burglaries, larcenies, and vehicle thefts (U.S. Department of
Justice, 2016). A second shortcoming of the clearance literature is that it has typically focused on
agencies in large cities. Small and rural law departments differ in important ways from large urban
ones, such as the availability of resources and the relationship with the community (Falcone, Wells,
& Weisheit, 2002; Weisheit, Wells, & Falcone, 1995). Small departments also clear property crime
at different rates. In 2015, departments serving populations smaller than 50,000 people cleared
15.3%of burglaries, 27.6%of larcenies, and 18.3%of vehicle thefts; those figures are 9.7%,
16.2%,and8.8%for jurisdictions with populations over 250,000 (U.S. Department of Justice
2016). In light of these two weaknesses in the literature, the present study examined the predictors
of property crime clearance rates using a sample of law enforcement agencies serving small
Literature Review
Research has examined the predictors of crime clearance at the incident, neighborhood, and city
level (e.g., Cihan, Zhang, & Hoover, 2012; Lockwood, 2014; Roberts & Roberts, 2016; Wong,
2010), and each approach offers unique advantages that are considered in detail later in this article.
The reader should note that, given the different limitations of each type of research, caution is
necessary when comparing findin gs across different levels of agg regation. Since this literature
review precedes a city-level study, it focuses on other macro-level work and notes whether the
studies of property crime examined cities or neighborhoods.
Community Factors
Scholars have known for decades that the social environment of a community can influence crime
clearance (Bennett, 1982; Cordner, 1989), and social disorganization theory is one perspective that
has been applied to that relationship (Mustaine, Tewksbury, Corzine, & Huff-Corzine, 2013;
Regoeczi & Jarvis, 2013). This theory grew out of work at the University of Chicago in the early
20th century (Park, Burgess, & McKenzie, 1925/1984; Shaw & McKay, 1942). It contends that
community traits (e.g., residential instability, racial diversity, etc.) permit crime to increase because
they obstruct the development of the relationships among residents who provide a foundation for
informal social control. The body of work testing these claims has since provided “strong empirical
support” for this perspective (Pratt & Cullen, 2005, p. 405). The original formulation of the theory
focused on crime in communities as has the bulk of research testing its claims. However, since some
cities and counties experience more social disorganization than others, scholars have also tested the
theory using larger aggregate units (Barnett & Mencken, 2002; Miethe, Hughes, & McDowall, 1991;
Mosher, 2001). The possible macro-level effects of social disorganization variables have also been
considered by clearance researchers, particularly at the city level where clearance rates are com-
monly reported (Borg & Parker, 2001; Jang et al., 2008; Ousey & Lee, 2010; Roberts, 2008; Roth,
2017). There are several reasons that social disorganization may be relevant to crime clearance. One,
social disorganization is expected to increase crime and so may be related to police workload and the
number of crimes to be cleared. Two, it may be more difficult to clear crimes in cities with much
478 Criminal Justice Review 43(4)

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