The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office arrested suspects in less than five percent of its cases in 2007, the Goldwater Institute says -- a shockingly low statistic that contradicts what the Sheriff's Office has long officially maintained.
The statistics, which the Goldwater Institute obtained through a public records request, show that the Sheriff's Office cleared just 4.68 percent of its cases by arresting a suspect in 2007. In 2008, the arrest rate was 13.07 percent -- a bit higher, but still a far cry from the department's official clearance rate of 57 to 62 percent.
As Clint Bolick, an attorney with the libertarian think tank, noted in a letter to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard today, there's strong evidence that the MCSO has been misusing an exception that allows law enforcement agencies to close a case under "exceptional" circumstances. That exception holds that the case can be cleared if the likely culprits are known but can't be arrested -- say, if the suspects are dead or in a country that refuses to extradite them.
Obviously, that should be a relatively rare phenomena. But the most recent statistics obtained by the Goldwater Institute show that the Sheriff's Office has cleared up to thirteen times as many cases by exception as arrest.
That may have allowed Sheriff Joe Arpaio to look like he was running a competent organization -- but, in reality, it appears to have concealed a scary underbelly of unsolved crimes in Maricopa County. After all, if only five percent of crimes are being solved, just how many rapists and murderers are running amuck?
If the statistics are true and the Sheriff's Office reallly is clearing thirteen times as many cases by exception, Bolick writes, "that raises a strong presumption that something is seriously amiss with MCSO's handling and reporting of criminal investigations."
It also appears to violate state law.
State law, as Bolick points out, "requires law enforcement agencies to provide statistics to the Department of Public Safety in a manner that allows for cooperation with the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting System."
The Goldwater Institute now suspects the sheriff isn't doing that.
In May, the Institute held a press conference to publicize the case of a young woman named Abigail Brown. As a 14-year-old, Brown was raped at a party -- only to see the Sheriff's Office close the case without much of an investigation. (See our take on the story here.)
When, as an adult, Brown returned to Phoenix to find out what had happened, she learned that the MCSO had closed the cleared the case by exception. That meant whenever the sheriff touted how many crimes he was solving, Brown's case was technically included in the "solved" numbers.
In response to the Goldwater press conference, the MCSO told the media that it uses "a different definition" for exceptional clearance. But that, Bolick writes, appears to violate the state law that requires statistics to match the Uniform Crime Reporting system.
"Common to all standard definitions of clearance by exception is that the identity of the perpetrator(s) must be established, and that circumstances beyond the law enforcement agency's control prevent an arrest," Bolick wrote to Goddard. "We are aware of no jurisdiction anywhere that recognizes an exceptional clearance 'due to technicalities,' which was the purported basis of the clearance in Ms. Brown's case."
Anne Hilby, a spokeswoman for Goddard, says the AG can't comment at this time. In May, when Bolick first presented the clearance issue (but didn't yet have the statistics), Goddard had indicated the matter was under review.
We reached Sheriff's Spokeswoman Lisa Allen this afternoon for comment; she promised to put us in touch with someone to talk about the numbers. We'll update this post, or maybe even write something new, when that happens.