3 ways to improve investigation clearance rates

Criminal investigation training, collaboration and technology all play a pivotal role


By Michael Cunningham

Improving clearance rates should be a top priority for every law enforcement agency. Not only does it provide the opportunity to get serial offenders, but it also represents closure and justice for victims and their families. Quite frankly, it is a very public scorecard for agencies and reflects on the effectiveness of a key part of your mission.

FBI Uniform Crime Reporting shows national clearance rates have been hovering in unacceptable ranges for too long:

Case clearance rates act as a public scorecard for agencies and reflects on the effectiveness of a key part of your mission.
Case clearance rates act as a public scorecard for agencies and reflects on the effectiveness of a key part of your mission. (Getty Images)
  • 61% for homicide;
  • 45% for violent crime overall;
  • 16% for property crime.

This problem has increased in 2020 and 2021 as investigations have become more complex than ever. Rising crime, budget cuts, shrinking forces and outdated technology have burdened departments and investigation teams are struggling to do more with less. On top of that, growing calls for accountability have put the investigative process under a microscope, making the job even more difficult.

Studies have shown that there are several best practice areas that can lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness, leading to an improvement in clearance rates by as much as 18%. Here are the most three best practices your agency can implement:

1. Collaboration

Strong cooperation and sharing of responsibilities between patrol officers, detectives and crime scene technicians are crucial.

Patrol officers play a major part in the process, including:

  • Securing the scene;
  • Protecting potential evidence;
  • Locating witnesses at hand;
  • Continuing to search for additional witnesses and informants over the days following the crime.

Ultimately, an officer’s actions upon arriving at the scene are often the difference between a case becoming solved or going unsolved. 

But the collaboration doesn’t stop at the scene. Bringing cases to a successful conclusion also depends on cross-unit collaboration within your agency – and even inter-agency collaboration – during the entire investigation.

Agency effectiveness breaks down when departments, such as the investigative team and intelligence unit, don’t communicate with each other or are not equipped with the right tools to communicate with each other.

Cross-collaboration requires discussing the status of a current case and sharing information on what each team is looking for. That way, if tips come in on the intelligence side of operations, they are actively aware of a possible connection and can inform investigators.

For example, often you will see a connection between homicides (investigative unit) and gang activity (intelligence unit). How often are your investigators and intelligence specialists touching base to see if there’s a connection between a spike in gang activity and crime?

2. Training

Criminal investigation training plays a pivotal role in equipping officers to perform these functions effectively. 

It takes months of training to become a police officer – followed by four to five years of experience before becoming a detective. Then, investigators need to be trained, mentored and closely supervised to ensure they’re performing to your agency’s standards.

It starts with this initial training, but it shouldn’t stop there. Officers and detectives need to be continually trained in investigation techniques and the tools that support them.

Studies show that the more training officers and detectives receive in criminal investigation techniques, the higher their case clearance rates.

Ultimately, each law enforcement agency must establish a set of basic and ongoing training classes to keep their investigators trained. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) outlines in a 2019 report which courses should be provided as base training, and which should be required as ongoing training.

With an emphasis on investigators in a homicide unit, PERF says: “In addition to the training they receive when joining a homicide unit, homicide detectives should receive regular, ongoing training that covers legal updates, new technologies, new policies and procedures, and specialized courses such as the recovery of digital evidence.”

Some of these training offerings may include:

Ongoing training should not be seen as optional. It takes time – but that’s time that will undoubtedly be recouped with investigators that are more effective and efficient. Plus, most training is offered to agencies at no cost.

3. Technology  

Most agencies are still stuck with old, paper-based processes, legacy homegrown systems or RMS add-ons for investigative case management functionality. These tools simply don’t cut it for today’s investigations.

In fact, in the same 2019 PERF report mentioned previously, they identified that Chicago PD’s RMS was not well suited for the case management functionality that they would need to improve clearance rates.

What agencies need is proper case management software, built intentionally to help make law enforcement more efficient and effective, solve more crimes faster and improve clearance rates.

What does this look like?

The following features are essential to delivering on the promise of improved clearance rates:

  • Structured and searchable digital case folder to organize and store everything for a case.
  • Search and analytical tools to connect the dots and identify patterns between people, places and evidence to solve cases faster.
  • Collaboration tools to share and receive alerts on new relevant evidence and information with co-workers, other departments, outside agencies and the DA’s office.
  • Pre-configured yet customizable checklists of action items to guide different types of investigations while allowing investigators to work the way they are used to.
  • Real-time visibility and reporting for supervisors, so they can manage workload and assess case status, access the data they need to report out at briefings and inform command staff.
  • Ability to integrate with RMS, so all critical incident data can move directly to a case folder as applicable.

Using purpose-built case management software is vital. It automates the process and provides patrol officers, investigators and supervisors with the tools they need to run modern investigations and resolve cases efficiently in the digital world.  

Ultimately, better technology also enhances the first two areas outlined in this article, collaboration and training, that require improvement to make progress with clearance rates. This is because technology allows for more efficient and automatic collaboration and can help formalize and track training efforts.

Conclusion

For agencies looking to improve clearance rates, it is important to prioritize these three fundamental areas, starting with the technology – specifically, case management software – and put these best practices to use to break through the case logjam and boost rates.

Most importantly, never lose sight of the fact that clearing a crime, especially violent crimes, provides victims and their families with the closure and justice they deserve. Nothing short of a case clearance will suffice.

DOWNLOAD: How to buy investigation software (eBook)


About the author

Michael Cunningham has more than 27 years of experience with the New York City Police Department and achieved the rank of Detective First Grade. He is now part of the ShotSpotter Investigate case management team and stays active in the industry instructing courses in forensics and response to terrorist incidents. Michael has also trained international law enforcement teams on antiterrorism police procedures and is author of "Crime Scene Unit Management: A Path Forward."

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