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New FBI Report on US Crime Notable for What’s Missing

Worrying Lack of Data Linked to Police Accountability

A general view of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) building in Washington, DC. © 2017 Reuters

In the first annual FBI compilation under the Trump Administration of known offenses and arrests from police departments around the country, the FBI has eliminated nearly 70 percent of the data tables it usually provides. This shift toward greater opacity in policing is especially worrying considering the Trump Administration’s efforts to roll back police accountability.

Though not without flaws, the FBI’s “Crime in the United States” reports from the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program have provided the best available window into crime and policing in the country.

The bulk of the data the FBI has suddenly stopped providing the public is related to arrests. It allows the public to understand whether the arrests police make differ between urban, suburban, and rural forces or between people of different ages or genders. This data is necessary for understanding how policing practices may infringe upon human rights and for holding police departments accountable.

For example, data wiped from the FBI’s report included a breakdown in the proportion of drug-related arrests that were for drug possession or use versus drug sales. Human Rights Watch used this data in its analysis that found that police in the US arrest someone for personal drug use or possession every 25 seconds and that these arrests cause dramatic and unnecessary harm to people and communities around the country.

The data the FBI has decided not to release to public scrutiny also allowed the public to understand whether trends in violent crime and homicide rates match the rhetoric of administration leaders.

The production of the deleted tables is a nearly automated procedure, so their deletion from the public record is not due to a lack of resources, but to a lack of will. The FBI has stated that the decision to remove the data tables was due to low web traffic. This is an indefensible reason to stop publishing such important data, and the decision was made without consulting the FBI’s Advisory Policy Board, which would typically approve such a change. Their removal points toward policies more aligned with information suppression than with public transparency. The FBI should reconsider its reduction of its publicly released data.

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