Clearance rate fuzzy in Detroit arson cases

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • Clearance rates are 3 percent or 19 percent%2C depending on calculation
  • The hardest fires to prove aren%27t always investigated
  • Mayor Mike Duggan vows changes

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan's vow to increase clearance rates for arson underscores how murky statistics can be when it comes to intentionally set fires.

In response to an ongoing series about arson in The Detroit News, Duggan on Thursday said he's "completely dissatisfied" with unsolved arson in Detroit and plans to set clear goals for the clearance rate.

But what is Detroit's clearance rate? And what's considered arson?

Depending on those answers, the clearance rate is far worse or better than the national average of 13 percent to 17 percent.

Consider: Last year, there were 3,839 suspicious fires in Detroit. Of those, 109 resulted in arrests, charges to juveniles or agreements not to prosecute, the FBI's definition of a "cleared case." Using that definition, Detroit's clearance rate is about 3 percent.

The Detroit Fire Department Arson Squad has 10 investigators, who probed a third of the fires, 1,219. The department deemed 658 of those fires accidental or undetermined. That would lower the number of arsons to 561 and increase the clearance rate to 19 percent.

That's the number used by Arson Chief Charles Simms, who has said the squad would investigate more fires if it had more investigators.

Now, the squad generally doesn't probe fires in vacant buildings that don't result in injury. Those are the majority of fires in Detroit and hardest to prove. Presumably, if those cases were investigated, the number of arsons would increase and clearance rate would fall.

Guy E. "Sandy" Burnette, a Florida attorney who specializes in arson cases, said arson is routinely under-counted nationwide. Unless fires are conclusively proven arson, they are counted as accidental or undetermined.

"It's a lack of priority," said Burnette, who said he believes the nationwide clearance rate is well under 10 percent. "That's been a problem as long as arson existed."

Richard Meier, treasurer of the National Association of Fire Investigators, reviewed the numbers at the request of The Detroit News and said they show the squad does as well as it can.

"To say these guys are slacking, I've got to stick up for them," said Meier, who is also a private fire investigator with John A. Kennedy & Associates, a Florida-based firm.

"They're not doing any worse than anyone else and given the city's budget problems and manpower, I'd say they are doing a great job."

Among other things, Duggan told The News he is considering bringing in police officers to investigate arson. Several cities currently combine police and firefighters to do so. Detroit did for years before the Fire Department took complete control of the unit more than 15 years ago.

"We're not going to keep doing things the way we have been," Duggan told The News.

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