Overhaul of Crime Stats Should Include Data Theft, Toxic Spills: Expert Panel

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An expert committee organized by the National Academy of Sciences called Wednesday for centralizing the control of collecting crime statistics as part of an overhaul of the nation’s crime-data collection system.

Such an overhaul, which would fill in gaps on reporting of offenses like data theft and environmental crime, is essential to developing a “more inclusive picture of crime in the United States,” the committee said.

The changes  would help managers and policymakers better assess the effectiveness of crime-fighting policies, evaluate the effectiveness of existing policies, and make justice agencies more accountable, it added.

The experts did not specify which agency should lead the process, but it said “what is critical is that national crime statistics be produced, coordinated, and governed pursuant to the expected sensibilities of a statistical agency, one for which data collection and dissemination—and attention to issues of data quality—are essential to the agency’s mission.”

The 15-member panel, headed by criminologist Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri St. Louis, said policymakers and justice practitioners currently lack “key and timely” data to help them improve and measure the effectiveness of their work.

“There is great benefit to be realized from better statistics in the nation’s crime problems,” said the panel. “It is time to develop a more inclusive picture of crime in the United States.”

Overall, the panel contended that “modern crime statistics require consideration of completely different ways to measure crime,” including, for example, assessing the “harm imposed by, or the costs associated with, crime.”

The group also cited the “problematic lack of solid information about the relative magnitude of the costs, harms, or importance across crime offense types or specific incidents.”

The call for a centralization of crime statistics would replace a system in place for decades, in which authority has been split between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which issues an annual report on crime statistics voluntarily submitted by police departments, and the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which publishes a yearly report based on interviews with Americans on whether they have been crime victims in the previous year.

The reports differ greatly because a large number of crimes are not reported to police.

The expert panel, formally known as the Panel on Modernizing the Nation’s Crime Statistics, offered several examples of the gaps in data on crime. Among them:

  • Thefts of data from businesses or government agents may put millions of Americans at risk of identity theft and serious financial harm. Cyberspace is a “perpetual domestic crime scene,” the committee said, but national crime statistics “have not been well equipped to measure cybercrimes such as the deployment of malware or coordinated attacks on computer networks.”
  • The opioid overdose crisis highlights the fact that production, sale and possession of narcotics are important crime categories, but those activities “are not well characterized in current crime statistics,” which largely consist of counts of seizures and arrests for drug law violations. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy periodically issues estimates on the dollar value of major drug markets, and data on drug users, but they are not part of routine crime reporting.
  • Materials “disappear” daily from the stocks of retailers and businesses, but the phenomenon is known as shrinkage “poorly understood by the public, in part because businesses do not commonly report all of their losses to law enforcement …even though the billions of dollars in losses almost inevitably affect all consumers.”
  • Available crime data “lack the detail and the timeliness to address important concerns,” the committee said. Both in 2006 and 2015, “news accounts and general perception fueled concerns about major increases in homicide despite the fact that the current homicide rate is less than half the rate of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Although some media outlets and advocacy groups collect their own data, the panel said, “the nation as a whole was hindered by the typical 10-month gap between the end of the calendar year and the release of current national crime statistics, unable to understand whether local patterns were part of broader regional or national patterns or whether increased homicide activities were limited to specific forms of homicide such as drug-related murder.”

The committee’s last reference was to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which typically is issued in late September for the previous year. The Justice Department’s victimization survey usually comes out even later.

The panel noted that merely counting the numbers of incidents, especially in the case of of relatively new crime types, is insufficient.

It cited as an example “ransomware” that denies computer users access to their data until a ransom is paid. There is a huge difference between locking up one home computer and the data system of an entire hospital or medical group.

Similarly, with environmental crimes, improperly disposing of a computer battery and spilling large volumes of toxic materials into the water or air each may represent a single violation of the law, but they are likely to have vastly different consequences.

Another problem cited by the panel is that both the FBI report and the victimization survey tend to report “coarse tallies” of how many crimes in particular categories occurred in the previous year.

That is not enough, said the experts, “to meet the needs of the full range of users and stakeholders.”

The committee mentioned some recently evolving offenses like arson, hate crime, human trafficking and cargo theft whose nuances are difficult to capture in totals of how many crimes were committed in a year.

The panel discussed the lack of detail in the FBI’s annual report, which provides totals of crime types like homicide and robbery that are reported by most of the nation’s 18,000 police departments.

For many years, the FBI has been trying to get more information on each crime through a system known as the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) that includes as many as several dozen details of each crime incident.

Police departments have been slow to compile and submit the data. Former FBI director James Comey called for the system to be adopted nationally by 2021.

The DOJ victimization survey also has had limitations because of a lack of resources. While the FBI data provides city-by-city crime counts, until recently, the victimization survey has been unable to make anything but national estimates. A few regional totals now are available.

The committee, which has been working for about four years, issued an earlier report with a proposed new classification of crimes to take into account modern-day violations in areas like environmental and computer crime, fraud, and national security.

Citing the historic split between the FBI and BJS in collecting crime data, the committee said that the U.S. has a “crime statistics system that lacks essential leadership.”

The committee did not take a stand on which agency should take the lead in the future or whether a new structure should be created.

“It is not clear if either BJS or the FBI is currently positioned to be successful in expanding the collection of crime statistics,” the committee said, suggesting that the White House Office of Management and Budget investigate the subject and make a recommendation.

Because most crime is reported on a state and local level, the report emphasized that state and local authorities should be included in planning any changes that will be coordinated on a federal level. The report includes a state-by-state summary of the laws and regulations on reporting crime statistics.

Joining Lauritsen on the study panel were Daniel Bibel, retired head of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Reporting Unit; Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University; Kim English of the Colorado Department of Public Safety; and Robert Goerge of the University of Chicago; Nola Joyce, a retired official of the Philadelphia Police Department; David McDowall of the University at Albany; and Jennifer Madans of the National Center for Health Statistics.

Other panel members were: Michael Maltz of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Ohio State University; Michael Miller of the Coral Gables, Fl., Police Department; James Nolan of West Virginia University; Amy O’Hara of the Stanford University Institute for Economic Policy Research; John Pepper of the University of Virginia; Alex Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Jeffrey Sedgwick of the Justice Research and Statistics Association.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments welcome.

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