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FBI’s National Crime Data Found to be Flawed, Manipulated

As it turns out, the FBI's annual reports on crime in the United States are only slightly more credible than campaign promises and Big Foot sightings.

An August 2012 investigative analysis by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that the overwhelming majority of data published in the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” report each year is non-verified, self-reported information from police agencies that are sometimes politically motivated to under- or over-report crimes and arrests in their jurisdictions.

Although the FBI began auditing local police departments in 1997 to ensure that crime statistics are accurately reported, the Journal-Sentinel discovered that less than 1% of about 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide that report data to the FBI have been audited in each of the last five years. Only about one-third of police departments in the 30 largest cities in the U.S. have been audited during that same time period, and data from six of those departments – including Seattle and Philadelphia – have never been reviewed since the FBI’s auditing program began.

“[Crime data] is a tool that politicians and police leaders use, yet the system is so incentivized to cast a favorable light and there [are] very little checks and balances to make sure it’s accurate,” stated Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Most people assume the data comes with a certain grain of authenticity because they are FBI statistics. But in reality they are not really FBI stats, but those of the actual police department.”

Additionally, some elected officials have been accused of manipulating crime data to argue that communities are safer under their leadership. In Milwaukee, for example, Mayor Torn Barrett and Police Chief Edward Flynn touted four straight years of declining crime numbers before the Journal-Sentinel reported in May 2012 that 500 “serious assaults” had been misclassified as minor offenses by police officials from 2009 to 2012.

The Milwaukee Police Department released its own internal audit a month later that uncovered more than 5,300 underreported aggravated assaults since 2006. In June 2012, the department sent almost 70 employees from various police divisions to attend a two-day training session on crime reporting procedures.

“If you’re saying your crime numbers are really low, but meanwhile they are really high and you aren’t hiring cops, you are going to exacerbate the problem of criminality,” noted John Eterno, director of the graduate criminal justice program at New York’s Molloy College.

Problems with misreporting crime data are nothing new. A 2001 scandal involving the Detroit Police Department revealed that the city’s statistics for rape arrests were erroneously high – so much so that they skewed national crime numbers. The city’s homicide arrest statistics likewise had been improperly elevated. The discrepancies were uncovered by the Detroit Free Press.

Politicians may also misrepresent crime trends to further their own agendas, including increased funding for certain programs or their re-election campaigns. In defense of Arizona’s xenophobic anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, Governor Jan Brewer and former state Senator Russell Pearce claimed that, due to human smuggling, Phoenix had become the “kidnapping capital of the world.” They blamed immigrants for higher rates of violence and property crimes – claims that were later discredited.

Further, research by both Silverman and Eterno has identified problems with crime reporting systems like CompStat, which is used by Milwaukee police and hundreds of other police agencies across the country. Traffic officers and homicide detectives alike are required to enter codes into the CompStat system to record arrests, unsolved crimes and other data. To meet certain performance quotas, police officials might be motivated to intentionally fudge the numbers.

Flynn, the Milwaukee police chief, insisted that his department’s crime reporting problems were due to human and computer errors, not data manipulation. An FBI audit of the Milwaukee Police Department, released in August 2012, reviewed a mere 60 incidents; comparably, the city’s police officers report around 93,440 criminal incidents and citations annually.

Richard Rosenfeld, former president of the American Society of Criminology, described the FBI’s audit as being “far too small for drawing meaningful conclusions.” Still, the audit found 5 underreported incidents out of the 60 reviewed, or around an 8.3% error rate.

In 1929, the FBI created the voluntary Uniform Crime Reporting Program to ensure consistency in the crime data compiled from law enforcement agencies across the country. The Uniform Crime Reports are considered one of two primary statistical tools for tracking crime trends in the United States, the other being the National Crime Victimization Survey by the Department of Justice. [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.17].

As a result of the FBI’s auditing program that began in 1997, the agency’s current policy is to conduct an audit of police departments in each state – usually between six and nine departments – once every three years. However, according to Dan Bibel, who directs the crime reporting unit for the Massachusetts State Police, the FBI’s audit team is short-staffed and only reviews a small number of agencies each year.

“I don’t want to say they’re doing a bad job,” said Bibel, a former president of the Association of State Uniform Crime Reporting Programs. “They’re doing the best they can with what they have.”

Which, apparently, isn’t much.

Sources: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel,

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