BARR: America’s Archaic Crime Reporting System Invites Manipulation

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Internet search engines have become the encyclopedias of the modern world, gathering and using vast amounts of information on billions of individuals for commercial and other purposes — and updating those databases continuously. With such technology to amass and disperse all manner of data being available, why then is it so difficult to obtain accurate information on just one category of information – crime data? It appears that some, perhaps many, law enforcement agencies may not want accurate and timely information on criminal activity within their jurisdictions available to the public.

All of us – including the police — live in the age of the internet. People the world over query search engine behemoth Google constantly. Reliable estimates are that between seven and ten billion Google searches are made every day; trillions each year. Even with that unfathomable amount of information directed to and managed by Google, the company has the capability to disseminate amazingly detailed data on those many users to third parties willing to pay for it. In this, Google is not alone. Other, smaller competitors, along with social media giants like Facebook and YouTube, have developed their own ways of monetizing and reporting information they collect.

But when it comes to crime data, we remain in the Dark Ages.

Crime statistics are collected and distributed nationally according to a cataloging system developed when Herbert Hoover was our president. The basic tool used by the FBI since 1930 to gather and report statistical data on crimes in the United States is the Uniform Crime Reporting (“UCR”) system. The information made available publicly each year, however, relies on data collected by thousands of law enforcement agencies and then sent to the FBI.

The problems inherent with UCR – including its slow speed and the arcane categorization of crimes according to which data is gathered and then published – have been well-known for years. Most problematic is the fact that the FBI is reliant on the accuracy and truthfulness of data it receives from reporting law enforcement agencies. Still, UCR remains the gold standard, as it were, for citing national crime statistics and discerning trends.

Occasionally, police officers within those reporting state or local law enforcement agencies have raised concerns publicly about the validity of the statistical data being transmitted to the FBI for purposes of UCR. In January of this year, for example, a veteran officer with the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department publicly accused her Department of deliberately misreporting crime statistics in order to make it appear less serious crimes were being committed in our nation’s capital than is actually the case. According to reporting by Channel WUSA9, the whistleblower’s concerns have met with silence, except for the release of a statement consisting of government doublespeak.

Similar concerns with either underreporting of crime data or misreporting so as to downplay the seriousness of crime in their jurisdictions, periodically have surfaced in other major metropolitan areas; New York City during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor for example, or Los Angeles in 2017. In these and many other instances, the concerns have been met with deafening silence to prevent less favorable data from finding its way into UCR.

Such deliberate manipulation of crime data by under-reporting or misreporting factual information harms residents in those areas in several ways, including providing a false sense of security. The corrupted process skews taxpayer funding of law enforcement activities and expenditures at all levels; including the federal government, which provides billons of dollars each year to police departments across the country.

Alternative data reporting systems are in fact available. The National Incident-Based Reporting System (“NIBRS”), also administered by the FBI, utilizes a more realistic categorization process for crime reporting than UCR, but only about a third of police agencies participate. Additionally, it still is dependent for its validity on the honesty of the reporting agencies.

One suggested method that would provide comprehensive law enforcement data without the potential for abuse of being filtered by individual reporting police departments is to rely on “Calls for Service.” A database consisting of information collected from 911 calls is far more accurate and comprehensive than either UCR or NIBRS and is readily available to the public (using established procedures for obtaining 911 data).

From the standpoint of technology, Calls for Service reporting could be implemented virtually overnight – that is, if police departments were more concerned about timeliness and accuracy of reportable crime data than with their own public relations image.

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.