ELLSWORTH — If you commit a crime in Maine, there’s a 64 percent chance you’ll get away with it, according to the latest data from the Maine Department of Public Safety, which collects monthly reports from agencies around the state.
Unless you’re in Hancock County that is, where law enforcement officers solved 60 percent of crimes in 2017 — the highest percentage of any county in the state.
“We’ve always taken pride in our high clearance rate,” said Ellsworth Police Department Chief Glenn Moshier. “It can be misleading but I think it can be a useful tool.”
A crime is considered “cleared” (solved) when a suspect has been charged, arrested or turned over to the court. Cases may also be considered cleared for other reasons, such as when a suspect dies, or if a victim declines to participate in prosecution.
Clearance rates in Maine are higher than the national average, but they’re still low. In 2017, Maine law enforcement agencies solved an average of 36 percent of all crimes tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, compared to the national average of 23 percent.
In Maine, burglary cases were least likely to be solved, with only one-quarter of all 3,316 cases cleared.
Police solved 165 of the state’s 448 reported rape cases that year, a rate of 37 percent, and 71 percent of the 21 murders.
Ellsworth Police cleared 65 percent of cases, compared to 71 percent in Bucksport and 49 percent in Bar Harbor.
“I think clearance rates can be a good indicator of effectiveness but also of resources and context,” said Michael Rocque, assistant professor of sociology at Bates College, in an email.
“For example, clearance rates may be higher in places that prioritize closing cases and have the resources to pursue cases until they can be closed.”
Moshier agreed. The agency sees a lot of shoplifting cases, he said, most of which are eventually solved, in part thanks to video cameras and loss prevention personnel employed by the stores. That helps boost the department’s clearance rate. Other agencies may see a greater number of crimes such as assaults and camp burglaries, cases that can be more difficult to crack.
“It’s things like that that go unsolved,” said Moshier. “Unsolved for many different reasons — uncooperative victims, lack of evidence.”
Rocque said that looking at trends, rather than clearance rates on their own, is most informative.
“In Maine, if you look at the [clearance rates], they are highest for murder and lowest for things like burglary. Across the years, you can see that hasn’t changed much.”
Rocque added that larger cities such as Chicago “have higher crime rates and different dynamics between law enforcement and the public than Ellsworth or Bangor, for example. So I would not say it is as simple as clearance rates = effectiveness and I would not recommend using them to rank departments.”
The role of police has changed over the past several decades, said Rocque, who is in the midst of writing a book on policing and crime prevention. Methods have come and gone over the years, but what has emerged, writes Rocque, is that “random, unfocused approaches (e.g., traditional policing that relied on simply having police ‘out there’) do not appear to be effective.”
Nor have educational programs, such as those for drug prevention, stood up to scrutiny, writes Rocque. But “focused, geographically restricted strategies seeking to work with the community on specific problems, however, do appear to work.”
Moshier agreed that building community relationships is important.
“I think certainly over the years law enforcement has become more proactive in community programs that will help prevent crime rather than just responding to crime,” he said.
The chief added that the department is looking to target the root causes of crime on both the prevention and enforcement sides.
“Unfortunately a lot of crime is driven by drugs and alcohol,” Moshier said. “We continue to work closely with Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, and our detectives will be expanding their involvement with drug enforcement. We’re going to become more engaged in those local complaints.”
The way the agency reports on crime will also be changing, said Moshier, as the federal government shifts to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) over the next two years.
The new system has more crime categories, said Moshier, and also breaks down crimes further, such as indicating what type of weapon was used.
“From a law enforcement perspective it’s going to require more info but it’s going to be more accurate,” Moshier said. “It’s going to be a positive thing once we get the swing of it.”