I’m sure they weren’t running through the brush on horses in red serge, but the image of the valiant Mountie “always getting his man” popped to mind when the press release came in last week that RCMP members from Wadena, Yorkton GIS and Swift Current K-9 had hunted down and arrested Joseph Desjarlais.
The mythology of always getting their man was popularized by Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, but according to the RCMP’s own website, it was actually coined decades earlier by a reporter with the Fort Benton (Montana) Record, who in April 1877 wrote:
“Thanks to the vigilance of Major Irvine and the energy of Captain Winder, of the N.W. Mounted Police, another attempt to smuggle whiskey has been frustrated by the arrest of three men, who were tried, found guilty and sentenced to pay a fine of five hundred dollars each or be imprisoned for the minor period of six months. They preferred the former. Horses were sacrificed for the arrest, but the M.P.’s are worse than bloodhounds when they scent the track of a smuggler, and they fetch their men every time.”
Of course, they don’t really get their man (or woman) every time, nor would it be reasonable for anyone to expect them to. In fact, recent statistics indicate the clearance rate (number of cases cleared divided by number of crimes reported) for Canadian police agencies is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40 per cent.
This should not be surprising to anyone, and should not even necessarily be alarming.
Crime clearance rates suffer from the same limitations as the crime rate itself; overall totals are dominated by a high volume of less serious offences such as minor thefts and mischief, which in addition to creating a huge workload are often very difficult to solve.
Furthermore, while this may be small comfort to someone who has just had their smart phone stolen, nobody can really begrudge police for prioritizing more serious crimes.
That is why statisticians are moving toward reporting weighted clearance rates. Like the crime severity index, which is becoming more prominent than straight crime rate, the weighted clearance rate assigns values to crimes according to their seriousness so a solved homicide, for example, has a greater impact on the clearance rate than, say, a cleared incident of graffiti.
The good news is police clear violent crimes at a rate of almost four times that of property crimes. For the latest reporting period (2000 to 2010) the rate also steadily increased across the board.
The only possible exception to this is the homicide clearance rate. While the overall number of murders in Canada has steadily declined since the mid-1970s, there has been a downward trend in the solve rate for decades. In the 1960s police cleared 90 to 95 per cent of homicides. By 2010, the percentage was only 75 per cent.
Again this should not be surprising, or necessarily alarming.
Over the past 50 years, the nature of murder in Canada has been shifting dramatically, particularly since 1993. Gang-related homicide, which is typically much more difficult to solve, has sharply increased. While gang activity in general is a cause for concern, the violence generally does not overspill into the population at large. The solve rate for non-gang-related murder remains at historic levels at 88 per cent.
Some other interesting aspects of the 10-year report are that Saskatchewan and the territories have the highest clearance rates, clearance rates are higher in smaller communities and that most Canadians are satisfied with their local police service.
Perhaps the Mounties don’t always get their man (or woman), but at least, for the most part, they’re getting the most important ones.