Are Cops Holding Back?

National Arrests Decrease for Most Categories

There is a considerable decrease in national arrests and increases in violent crime that correlate with the negative publicity.

I wrote, “Dislike Cops? No Justice No Peace” to understand the increase in homicides and violent crime in 2015 and 2016.

Many police officers believe that they are no longer supported by the justice system and public.

The National Institute of Justice of the US Department of Justice offered research that examined the increase in homicides from two perspectives, increasing drug markets and the reluctance of some police officers to engage in proactive (or aggressive) policing, Crime in America-Homicides. There is no lack of interest in the subject.

Some readers suggested that the premise of, “Dislike Cops? No Justice No Peace” would be strengthened by an examination of national arrests to see if they declined. This article responds to those suggestions.

The Increase in Violent Crime

Many of us from the former director of the FBI to data from Pew to research institutions to national law enforcement organizations believe that the vast increases in violent crime in 2015 and 2016 is linked to cops holding back, they are not being proactive, Crime in America-Cops.

Some officers are so impacted by public criticism that they are not being proactive . There are media accounts in Baltimore and other cities of crowds of people surrounding officers during arrests while taunting them and taking videos.

Yes, officers are responding to calls for service. They are doing routine patrols. But some are doing little else.

Proactive policing (cops doing more to control crime) has the backing of research as to lowering violent crime, Crime in America-Proactive Policing.

If cops are not being proactive or aggressive enough, and if its possible that this lack of action is contributing to increasing violent crime (homicides have the highest percentage increase since the 1960’s), is it time to consider that our approach to law enforcement has been dysfunctional?

Have cops lost faith in the system?

Per Pew, 72% say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons. Overall, more than eight-in-ten (86%) say police work is harder today as a result of high-profile, negative incidents.

About nine-in-ten officers (93%) say their colleagues worry more about their personal safety – a level of concern recorded even before a total of eight officers died in separate ambush-style attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

National Arrest Data

The full report on arrests for 2016 is not available at the time of this writing (scheduled for January per the FBI). Summary data is available.

It’s obvious that arrests in 2016, FBI-Arrests-2016, are lower than 2015 in terms of total numbers, FBI-Arrests-2015.

There were 10,797,000 arrests in 2015 versus 10,662,000 in 2016 for a difference of approximately 135,000 arrests (I use rounded numbers).

There were more arrests for violent crimes, (506,000 in 2015 and 515,000 in 2016) for a difference of approximately 9,000 additional arrests. Note that violent crime increased considerably in 2015 and 2016, Crime in America-US Crime Rates, so additional arrests were expected.

Arrests for property crime were 1,463,000 in 2015  and arrests for property crime were 1,353,000 in 2016 for an approximate decline of 110,000.

Where Are the Decreases in Arrests Coming From?

We just documented the decreases in arrests for total and property crime when comparing 2015 to 2016. There was a small increase in arrests for violent crimes.

To see discrete categories, we need to look at the full report on arrests from the FBI for 2015. Those categories are offered for 2011 to 2015 for a five-year comparison, FBI-Arrests-2011-2015.


Total-12.3 percent decrease.

Robbery-11.2 percent decrease

Burglary-26.6 percent decrease

But when we get into the quality of life categories that were targeted by many proactive police efforts, we find:

Vandalism-18.8 percent decrease

Weapons Carrying-3.3 percent decrease

Prostitution-26.1 percent decrease

Drug Abuse-0.4 percent decrease

Gambling-38.0 percent decrease

Liquor Laws-43.9 percent decrease

Drunkenness-25.9 percent decrease

Disorderly Conduct-30.9 percent decrease

Suspicion-21.7 percent decrease


Based on the arrests comparisons for 2015 and 2016, and the five-year data offered by the full arrest report in 2015, it’s obvious that arrests are down considerably for most categories.

Based on five-year data, arrests for major crime categories as well as the quality of life crimes targeted by proactive policing are down, some by very large numbers.

Criminologists, advocates, politicians, and others will provide their own perspectives for the decrease in arrests.

First, for the five-year comparison, we don’t know from the data as to when the bulk of the decreases occurred. But we do know that it corresponds to the increased controversy and frictions between law enforcement and some communities. We also know that correlation does not equal causation.

Some observers will celebrate the numbers as proof that their criticisms are having a much-needed effect. Many critics advocate for fewer arrests thus lessening the detrimental impact on the lives of those affected.

Others will suggest that we had a flat crime rate for 2014 and a decrease in crime for previous years, thus reductions in arrests should be expected.

But data from Pew (72% say officers in their department are now less willing to stop and question suspicious persons), plus comments from a wide array of experts and organizations suggest that some cops are “holding back” because of unjustified harsh media and public criticism.

We have very large increases in homicides and violent crime for 2015 and 2016 for most American cities. Many are suggesting that their cities have become war zones. The mayor of Baltimore states that crime is out of control in that city. Increases in homicides are setting records.

As I state in one of my previous articles, “But the bottom line is that many officers are simply stating that if there is no justice, there will be no peace. They will not risk their lives and careers for an unappreciative public.”

Maybe its time to reassess whether our endless criticism of cops is in anyone’s best interest.

Yes, there have been too many incidents of police illegal use of force, and communities are voicing legitimate concerns regarding harsh forms of policing. But is it possible to express frustrations while understanding that most cops are decent people trying to do a difficult and dangerous job?

It should be noted that endless community organizations and politicians demanded aggressive policing. Proactive policing was advocated by the media. This wasn’t a decision made by individual officers; every stop puts them in jeopardy.

Can we both protect democracy and citizen rights without painting all police officers with a broad and negative brush? Can we express concerns while understanding that cops are vital to a community’s safety?

For Baltimore and other American cities, I hope that reassessment is not too late. Officers are leaving policing, recruitment is becoming impossible, and families are urging their loved ones to get out of policing, and to get out now.

Urban cities and counties need cops to keep them and their communities safe. There may be problems with police-community relations in some communities, but that does not erase the need for good, proactive police officers and community participation.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.