I remember when I sent out my first book to a publisher. I got a very positive letter back, but the publisher took exception to my referring to police officers as stupid. She pointed out that a lot of police officers read their books and that she knew a lot of them and they weren’t stupid. I ended up just writing a different book for her. And I didn’t argue the point. I had only written for small weekly newspapers and had not developed the charming pugnacious personality that is on display each day seen here at Frankly Curious. Plus, I really wanted to publish my first book.
There are a few points to note. First, I never wrote that police officers were stupid. I wrote that they “are not the brightest lights in the house and their lack of knowledge could act as a damning indictment of our educational system.” I went on to relate an example of an officer not knowing what the word “courtesy” as in “courtesy of the American Legion.” I don’t think that police officers are stupid and I never had. But compared to me, they are. Compared to most of the people I know they are. But that doesn’t make them bad at their jobs.
Indeed, courts have concluded that it is okay to not hire an officer because they are too smart. The truth is that police work is incredibly boring. There is a high attrition rate among them. Actual tests of police officers find that they are of average intelligence and that’s just fine with me. My problem with the police is that they tend to be bullies and tribalistic and self-impressed. What they should be is damned grateful that given their limited skills and abilities they have an easy job that pays really well. Instead, they go around acting like they couldn’t be replaced, which just isn’t the case at all.
I was very interested in a recent article at Vox by Dara Lind, Police Are Solving a Lot Fewer Murder Cases Than They Used To. But that’s not a great headline. What’s really going on is that since 1990, the murder rate has been cut roughly in half. Yet the percentage of these murders that ended in arrest (Not conviction!) has been flat at roughly 65%. So if you murder someone, you you have a one in three chance of never being arrested.
Lind presents this as the effect of people not trusting the police. Despite all our new technologies and all the super keen stuff you see on cop shows on television, most murderers are caught because someone saw the murder — or something else close enough. (This is also the reason that a lot of people go to prison for murders they didn’t commit, but we’ll leave that for another time.) People in high crime areas don’t trust the police because instead of helping, they murder people when called to deal with depressed teens. I don’t know. I suspect that people unwilling to talk to the police is a part of the problem. But it’s a very small part of the problem.
I think the issue is quite simple. Roughly two-thirds of murders are easy. A great many of them are something along the lines of things got out of control at a family gathering and son shot uncle. There is no investigation required. In one-third of the cases, it isn’t clear. It is not the case that, “They know who did it…” I’ve never met a police officer who didn’t claim to know that whoever he arrested was guilty. And even after DNA evidence exonerates someone, those same officers still “know” that the arrestee was guilty.
There are two critical things about the police that make them so bad at cracking cases: their middling intelligence and their general laziness. Have you ever watched one of those shows where some police officer cracks a case years later? First, those represent exceptions. Second, the “brilliant insight” that cracks the case are always obvious. For example, in one case, a guy murdered his wife and then left the air conditioner on at full blast to screw up the the determination of time of death. That’s pretty clever. But it took the officers forever to figure it out. It doesn’t take Monk to figure this stuff out — just someone with a strong work ethic and an IQ over 104.
Add to this that the police don’t really care. Most of the people who are murdered are poor. There’s no pressure on them to solve the cases. It’s certainly true that if the police didn’t act like such jerks and make everyone hate them, it would be easier to do their jobs. But it’s going to take a lot more than this to solve more murders. And I don’t see the police moving toward fixing their jerk problem.