How Much Crime Fighting Do ‘Crime Fighters’ Really Do?

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

In an earlier post on policing and crime fighting, I briefly reviewed some of the research on police activities discussing the amount of time cops spend on law enforcement related activities. That research basically shows that only a small percentage of police activity is actually devoted to “crook-catching.” I concluded that, “When one looks at all the research on what police officers actually do, it is safe to say that very little of a police officer’s day is directly devoted to the stereotypical depiction of a cop as ‘crime fighter.’ Indeed, a television cop probably sees more crime fighting action in a single season than many cops see in their entire careers.”

Another way to determine just how much real crime-fighting police officers do is to look at the crime reported to the police against the number of officers employed in the United States. The FBI’s annual “Uniform Crime Report” provides us with data on the number of crimes reported to the police. We can look at the number of crimes reported to the police by the number of sworn officers employed in any given year to get a rough idea of how much crime fighting is really done.

For example, if we take all the violent crimes reported to the police in 2011, we find that there were 1,203,564 violent crimes (FBI, 2012). Since more than 885,000 people worked as sworn officers in that same year (BJS 2012), there were 1.36 violent crimes reported for every police officer employed in the US. If crime were dispersed evenly across the nation’s police, then this would mean that in 2011 each police officer would have been responsible for investigating just over a single violent crime. And since we know that a relatively small number of criminals are responsible for the vast majority of crime in society, each cop would be responsible for even fewer criminals.

Likewise, when we look at the different types of violent offenses, we find that the murder rate is .017 per officer, rape .09 per officer, robbery .4 per officer and aggravated assault .84 per officer. There would also be about 10.2 property crimes per officer, 2.5 burglaries, 7.9 thefts and .81 motor vehicle thefts. This of course does not mean that our average police officer would actually encounter or even arrest one of these offenders, just that these are the rates of crime reported per police officer. In fact, since many crimes never lead to an arrest, these figures drastically underestimate just how many criminals the police encounter every year. The frequency of police actually running into and successfully arresting a criminal is even more telling.

When we look at the number of arrests made by police officers in the U.S., we find that in 2011 our 885,000 officers made about 12.4 million arrests—534,704 violent crime arrests, 1,639,883 property crime arrests, and 10,234312 arrests for petty offenses (FBI, 2012). Sounds like a lot of arrests, right? Not really. While the average officer would have made about 14 arrests in 2011, less than one of these arrests would have been for a violent crime and fewer than two arrests would have been for property crimes. In fact, 12 of the arrests made by our “average” police officer would have been for petty crimes like minor drug or alcohol possession, disorderly conduct, and vandalism. These figures, like the research on police activity, suggest that police work involves far less crime fighting than one might expect.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

References

BJS (2012). Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2008. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

FBI (2012). Uniform Crime Reports, 2011. Washington, DC.

Published on May 14, 2013