Staffing shortages are causing case backlogs at Phoenix-area police departments

Valley police departments are finding themselves in a tough spot with a shortage of officers and a spike in violent crime.
Published: May. 25, 2022 at 6:00 AM MST|Updated: May. 25, 2022 at 10:12 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – When you call the police to report a crime, you’re hoping it’ll be solved. But most crimes aren’t. For example, only about 50% of murders nationwide are solved, and for property crimes, like burglaries and car thefts, it’s less than 20%. Valley police departments find themselves in an especially tough spot. There’s a shortage of officers and a spike in violent crime. There’s also been a shift in how some of the Phoenix-area police departments track clearance rates.

“It beats on my heart. Every day, I think about it,” LaKenya Moses said. Moses finds it hard to talk about the murder of her daughter, Jaelynn Alston. Two years after her death in Phoenix, police haven’t made an arrest. “You just focus on who did it and why. And I feel once we get the perpetrators or perpetrator, we can begin to heal,” she said.

The 18-year-old’s body was found back in January 2020 in an office building in west Phoenix a week after her dad, Jimmie Alston, reported her missing. Investigators said a cleaning crew smelled something, leading to her body.

Jaelynn’s case isn’t unique. Data from Phoenix Police shows that 28% of homicides in the city haven’t been cleared, meaning there has been no arrest. There’s been a steady improvement in homicide clearance rates here since 2016 when just 54% were.

But clearance rates for violent crimes overall, including manslaughter, rape, and assault, were just 29% last year. That means there was no arrest in more than 70% of those cases. For property crimes like burglary, car thefts, and arson, the data shows less than 11% of cases get cleared.

Arizona’s Family asked Phoenix Police why that is. “There’s a high number of property crimes which spread out among an average number of detectives. It’s a really big caseload to try to manage. They also don’t have the amount of evidence that’s collected that’s able to be worked, to get toward that clearance,” Phoenix Police Lt. Dave Albertson said.

Dr. Bill Terrill, a professor with ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said it’s to be expected. Homicides are the priority for police departments. They put their best officers and the most resources toward solving them. “Really homicides, sometimes aggravated assaults, are really the only two that generally will get above 50% clearance rate,” Dr. Terrill said.

Staffing is a significant issue. Phoenix is looking to hire more than 400 officers, which means about 15% of positions are currently unfilled. “It’s huge, it’s absolutely huge. I think you see fewer officers on the street, our numbers say that and when you have fewer officers on the street, your response times are going to go down,” Lt. Albertson said.

The data Phoenix provided doesn’t show a decline in clearance rates for violent crimes yet, but it does indicate they’re clearing fewer property crimes. “The more I give them, the less likely they are to solve,” Lt. Albertson said.

So how does Phoenix compare to other nearby cities? Phoenix uses the Uniform Crime Rate or UCR to track clearance rates, basically dividing the number of crimes cleared by the number of crimes reported. Glendale uses that formula too. Their violent crime clearance rate sits at 24% for 2021. They solve just 13% of property crimes.

In 2020, the FBI switched to a different system to track clearance rates, called the National Incident-Based Reporting System or NIBRS. The big difference is that the arrests made in a case count toward the year in which the crime happened, not the year of the arrest. “Always striving to be as consistent and accurate in our reporting as we possibly can with this,” Officer Aaron Bolin with the Scottsdale Police Department said.

Scottsdale Police switched to that new reporting system. In 2021, Scottsdale’s clearance rate for violent crime was 43%, property crime 13%. Mesa police are also using this new system. They said last year, their clearance rate was 29% for violent crimes and 14% for property crimes. “When you have “persons crimes,” or violent crimes, there are typically witnesses, and usually you also have a victim that’s also a witness. And that can also help with evidence collection and finding a suspect later,” Officer Bolin said.

“There’s (sic) not cameras everywhere. You don’t always have the statistical wiz that’s on the TV show putting together the camera angles so that you identify the offender,” Dr. Terrill said.

That’s one reason Moses wears her jumpsuit each week. Not only to remember Jaelynn. “Just being connected, this makes me connected,” Moses said. She’s doing her part to draw attention to the case so that her daughter isn’t another statistic.