The FBI's Major Crime Report Is Missing Critical Info And Experts Are Sounding The Alarm

The 2016 Crime in the United States report omits key data about homicides and drug arrests.
Criminologists are sounding the alarm about data that is missing from the FBI's most recent crime report. 
Criminologists are sounding the alarm about data that is missing from the FBI's most recent crime report. 

President Donald Trump loves to talk about crime. In his nomination acceptance address, he vowed that he would “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities.” In his inauguration speech, he swore to put an end to “American carnage.”

But despite his apparent interest in the topic, the first exhaustive report on crime issued during his presidency is missing a colossal amount of data. And now criminologists are sounding the alarm.

On Wednesday, an organization representing more than 5,000 criminal justice scholars and researchers issued a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, expressing its concerns about the FBI’s 2016 Crime in the United States report, which came out in September.

Each year for the past eight decades, the FBI releases a comprehensive report that criminologists rely on to analyze and understand crime trends. It’s an essential tool. This year, the report looks very different from past versions. It contains 64 percent fewer data tables than the 2015 version ― 52 tables are just simply gone.

In a statement on its website, the FBI noted that it “strategically trimmed the amount of tables and refined the presentation of data in this year’s publication” in an effort to streamline the report.

Peter Wood authored the letter on behalf of the Crime & Justice Research Alliance, a joint project of the American Society of Criminology and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. Wood, the chair of the alliance, said the FBI’s explanation is sorely lacking.

“This has significant implications for the justice research community that relies on this trusted information for a broad range of research activists, including evaluation and assessment of trends in crime, arrests, clearance rates and related matters,” he wrote. “Given this administration’s public statements about addressing violent crime, victims’ rights, the opioid epidemic and terrorism, it is unfortunate that the 2016 report removes key data about these topic areas.”

Among the missing statistics in the 2016 report is information on the relationship between victims and offenders ― which is of particular interest to those studying domestic violence homicides. 

Katie Ray-Jones, the CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, said the 2016 report makes it much more difficult to identify the number of women murdered by their partners.

“We want answers to a key question: ‘Why would critical data that helps us fight the scourge of violence against women be removed from this annual report?’” she said. “We are fighting every day to end domestic violence and without this needed data it is now nearly impossible for The Hotline and our fellow advocates to gauge how dire the problem and how successful our efforts are to combat it.”

The report is also missing data that allows researchers to separate out arrests relating to specific drug types. In practice, that means researchers cannot, for example, easily distinguish arrests for heroin from those for marijuana.  

“Yet, of course, we are in the midst of a very serious opioid epidemic,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who studies drug-related homicides and arrests. “The 2016 report makes it impossible to continue to monitor trends.”

He urged the FBI to immediately release the missing tables.

“The policies that tend to work are based on good, reasoned, accurate, reliable evidence,” he said. “Without that evidence, we are in a policy blind alley.”

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said he found the decision to whittle down the number of tables in the report strange, especially given the recent uptick in some types of violent crime, including homicides.

“There’s an even greater need for the data to try to understand what is going on, and how to combat it,” he said. 

The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.