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Opinion | Why Did the N.Y.P.D. Solve Fewer Crimes Last Year?

Chief Harrison also said that the department was forced to divert investigators away from cases last spring to staff the large protests that rolled across the city after Mr. Floyd’s death.

The pandemic, as well, posed a historic challenge. Of the department’s roughly 5,000 detectives, around 2,000 were out on sick leave at some point in 2020, N.Y.P.D. officials said. The department put on hold community meetings that police officials say can help officers gain the trust of residents, making it easier to solve cases. Chief Harrison also said that the face masks worn during the pandemic have made it harder to identify suspects.

The challenges facing the N.Y.P.D., and the entire city, last year were indeed extraordinary. But the clearance rate of the city’s police department — the largest in the United States, with an annual budget of roughly $5.4 billion — deserves scrutiny nonetheless. Experts say clearance rates are a key measure of a police department’s performance, along with the rate of crime and police conduct.

One former senior N.Y.P.D. official said in an interview that the police force engaged in something akin to a slowdown last year, shying from enforcement that could lead to steep consequences for individual officers in an environment often hostile toward the police. The department’s leadership was rarely held accountable for mistakes.

“Police departments have tended to place greater emphasis on crime levels, and you certainly can understand that. But the clearance rate can tell us a lot more about the operation of the department,” Charles Wellford, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, told The Times.

Several studies have found that the effectiveness of the police at solving crimes plays a major role in determining whether individuals or communities trust them and report crimes. That research suggests that more closely examining the rate at which police departments solve cases is good public policy.

Erica Ford, the co-founder of LIFE Camp, a nonprofit in Queens focused on violence intervention, said the high number of unsolved cases is another source of trauma in already traumatized communities. “There’s unsolved pain. There’s unsolved hate and anger. That festered, and everything else just continues to breed the disease of violence,” she said. “If we don’t invest in helping people heal then the communities continue to be destroyed.”

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