Where have all the data gone? The effects of the FBI’s decision to reduce public access to crime data
Last week, the Crime & Justice Research Alliance, a group of over 5,000 criminologists, sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The topic: Where have all the data gone? This came in response to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) decision to “streamline” its dissemination of annual crime statistics, publishing 70 percent fewer data tables in its Crime in the US 2016 report than in prior years.
This move isn’t just disconcerting because of the lack of data now available to researchers, advocates, and the public. It also represents a tremendous setback in efforts to promote the democratization of data—a threat to our understanding of crime in 2016 as well as to our ability to discern changes in crime patterns over time.
As researchers, we’re in the business of data—collecting data, analyzing data, and publishing data, often in the form of reports. We know firsthand the challenges and considerations involved with the data acquisition and analysis process. If the FBI suffered from a lack of available crime data, or encountered unique challenges in cleaning and verifying those data, that would be one thing. But in this case, the administration says it shortened the report to eliminate charts that are not frequently referenced.
A comparison of the 2015 and 2016 reports reveals that some of those eliminated charts were crucial—especially when it comes to providing data at the state and local levels. Arrests by race, for example, are reported as a national statistic, but not by state or metropolitan area. Given the fraught relationship between police and communities of color, tracking changes in arrest rates by race is critical in understanding whether police reform efforts are working. We know from our own research that criminal justice data on race and ethnicity are already too sparse, and this move exacerbates that problem.
What’s more, while state and local charts are likely among those referenced less often (data on Florida are less likely to be accessed by stakeholders in Kansas), they’re essential because so much criminal justice reform today is taking place at the state level. One state’s experiences with a given policy approach may be of significant interest to other states. And if metropolitan areas like Chicago remain a focus for President Trump, local data to compare Chicago with other cities—and to itself year over year—will be important.
Data for metropolitan areas brings up another missing element: the annual estimate of gang violence, which does not appear in the 2016 FBI report. President Trump has mentioned the threat of gang violence often and in very strong terms, and his interest in reducing gang violence is shared by local officials, police, nonprofits, and many others. If the administration wants to make gang-related criminal activity a priority in its discussions of public safety, it has a responsibility to continue producing and publicly sharing relevant data.
This shift from the FBI comes at a time when criminal justice data are already lacking. In addition to the sparse data on ethnicity, there is a long history of insufficient data around intimate partner violence, particularly when it comes to diverse and marginalized populations, such as communities of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the FBI report is now missing data about intimate partner homicides, making it harder to fight violence against women. The FBI should ensure that data—particularly when it comes to crucial issues and marginalized populations—are available to the organizations that need them to do their work.
The implications of a report with drastically fewer arrest data tables are significant. From local governments trying to figure out where they stand compared with others, to academics and research organizations trying to analyze data in new ways, fewer data hinders efforts to elevate the debate around justice issues.
Other groups that should be disappointed with the FBI’s decision to withhold data are the general public and the media responsible for bringing content and context to the public. Publicly available data puts the ability to learn about crime trends in the hands of anyone with an interest in doing so. A brief we published last year demonstrates the power of democratized data by using only publicly available data to examine fairness in traffic stops and use of force in Austin, Texas.
People in all communities should have access to crime data to understand the nature of crime and to use it to inform crime control strategies and promote fact-based policy reform efforts.
Update (12/08/2017): Following the publication of this post, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked about this issue during a December 7th House Judiciary Committee hearing. He responded that upon further consideration, "We recently made a decision internally to go ahead and republish the information with the tables." That updated publication is expected to be released in several weeks, roughly three months after the publication of the original report.
Illustration by Gary Waters/Getty Images.