The FBI will begin collecting nationwide data on ethnicity next year to be published in its annual Uniform Crime Report, making it possible to test the assertion of some advocacy groups that police arrest Latinos -- a multiracial ethnic group -- at higher rates than non-Hispanic whites. The recent move marks the revival of an earlier FBI effort to collect crime data by ethnicity, abandoned in 1987.
Currently, the FBI only tabulates arrest data by race, with categories for white, black, Asian or Pacific Islander, and American Indian or Alaska Native. Latinos, who can belong to any race provided they have Latin American heritage, effectively vanish from the agency’s published records.
The FBI’s new approach, decided on June 5 and noted in a post to its website, would bring the agency’s policy closer in line with the U.S. Census Bureau, even as that agency considers changing its classification of “Hispanic” from ethnicity to race. The FBI's recent measure broadens the ethnicity categories from “Hispanic” to “Hispanic or Latino Origin” and from “Non-Hispanic” to “Not of Hispanic or Latino Origin.”
“Starting this year we are actively asking agencies to report ethnicity data once again,” Loretta Simons, a supervisory technical information specialist with the FBI, told The Huffington Post.
The Office of Management and Budget first authorized the FBI to collect ethnicity data nationally in 1980, but abandoned the policy seven years later. Law enforcement agencies across the country continued collecting the data over the years, but because of uneven reporting, the ethnicity data doesn’t appear in the agency’s annual Uniform Crime Report.
The FBI’s new policy also adds a fifth racial category by separating Asians from Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders.
The change is welcome news for the American Civil Liberties Union, which hammered the FBI’s data-gathering methods this month after releasing a report that revealed a stark bias against blacks for arrests related to marijuana.
The study, based on the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, found that blacks were 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession from 2001 to 2010, though drug usage rates are similar.
Lynda Garcia, a fellow with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, says excluding Latinos from national arrest statistics likely masks a similar arrest bias against Hispanics.
“Without the data, we don’t know if the Hispanic community is also being targeted for marijuana possession more than white communities,” Garcia told The Huffington Post. “It’s a pretty big number to be just kind of fudging."
Garcia suspects that failing to gather data on Hispanic arrest rates may obscure the true arrest bias against blacks, since law enforcement generally classifies Latinos as “white.” She noted that the ACLU’s report found a lower incidence of bias toward blacks in areas with large Latino populations.
“If, in fact, Latinos are arrested at a higher rate than whites -- which we presume they might be, then the disparity against blacks would be even greater,” Garcia said.
Simmons of the FBI said the agency did not have a timeline to implement the changes, but that she hoped to finish the transition within the next two to three years.
Some, however, remain skeptical that the new policy would quickly overcome decades of bureaucratic inertia.
“I guess my feeling is -- and I don’t mean this in a mean way -- but I’ll believe it when I see it,” Will Bunting, a fiscal policy analyst with the ACLU told HuffPost.
Policymakers at the U.S. Census Bureau have also struggled in recent years with how to classify the growing number of Hispanics.
Latinos currently check a box indicating whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic, before moving on to a separate section that designates their race.
But, in part because Latinos often come from racially mixed heritage not recognized by the Census Bureau, the “race” category tends to lead to confusion. Some 37 percent of Latinos marked their race as “other” in the 2010 Census.
Concerned about the possibility of undercounting Latinos, some within the Census Bureau now want to categorize Hispanics as a race -- a move opposed as inaccurate by many Latinos.