The FBI doesn’t collect every piece of data about crime

The FBI released the 2014 Uniform Crime Report Monday but it doesn’t have every piece of information we might wish to have:

As I noted in May, much statistical information about the U.S. criminal-justice system simply isn’t collected. The number of people kept in solitary confinement in the U.S., for example, is unknown. (A recent estimate suggested that it might be as many as 80,000 and 100,000 people.) Basic data on prison conditions is rarely gathered; even federal statistics about prison rape are generally unreliable. Statistics from prosecutors’ offices on plea bargains, sentencing rates, or racial disparities, for example, are virtually nonexistent.

Without reliable data on crime and justice, anecdotal evidence dominates the conversation. There may be no better example than the so-called “Ferguson effect,” first proposed by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald in May. She suggested a rise in urban violence in recent months could be attributed to the Black Lives Matter movement and police-reform advocates…

Gathering even this basic data on homicides—the least malleable crime statistic—in major U.S. cities was an uphill task. Bialik called police departments individually and combed local media reports to find the raw numbers because no reliable, centralized data was available. The UCR is released on a one-year delay, so official numbers on crime in 2015 won’t be available until most of 2016 is over.

These delays, gaps, and weaknesses seem exclusive to federal criminal-justice statistics. The U.S. Department of Labor produces monthly unemployment reports with relative ease. NASA has battalions of satellites devoted to tracking climate change and global temperature variations. The U.S. Department of Transportation even monitors how often airlines are on time. But if you want to know how many people were murdered in American cities last month, good luck.

There could be several issues at play including:

  1. A lack of measurement ability. Perhaps we have some major disagreements about how to count certain things.
  2. Local law enforcement jurisdictions want some flexibility in working with the data.
  3. A lack of political will to get all this information.

My guess is that the most important issue is #3. If we wanted this data we could get this data. Yet, it may require concerted efforts by individuals or groups to make the issues enough of a social problem to ask that we collect good data. This means that the government and/or public needs a compelling enough reason to get uniformity in measurement and consistency in reporting.

How about this reason: having consistent and timely reporting on such data would help cut down on anecdotes and instead correctly keep the American public up to date. They could then make more informed political and civic choices. Right now, many Americans don’t quite know what is happening with crime rates as their primary sources are anecdotes or mass media reports (which can be quite sensationalistic).

Irresponsible to take FBI crime statistics and name a “murder capital”

News stories like this one seem to suggest that the FBI just designated Chicago the murder capital of the United States.

Move over New York, the Second City is now the murder capital of America.

According to new crime statistics released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chicago had more homicides in 2012 than any other city in the country. There were 500 murders in Chicago last year, the FBI said, surpassing New York City, which had 419.

In 2011, there were 515 homicides in the Big Apple, compared with the 431 in Chicago.

But as the Washington Post noted, residents of Chicago and New York were much less likely to be victims of a homicide than some Michigan residents. In Flint, for example, there were 63 killings — a staggering number when you consider Flint’s population is 101,632 — “meaning 1 in every 1,613 city residents were homicide victims.” In Detroit, where 386 killings occurred in 2012, 1 in 1,832 were homicide victims.

Check out the FBI press release announcing the 2012 figures: there is no mention of a “murder capital.” In fact, the press release seems to caution against the sort of sensationalistic interpretations that are implied by “murder capital”:

Each year when Crime in the United States is published, some entities use the figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction. The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population coverage or student enrollment.

To their credit, a number of these news stories include figures like those in the quoted section above: the murder rate is probably more important than the actual number of murders since populations can vary quite a bit. But, that still doesn’t stop media sources from leading with the “murder capital” idea.

My conclusion: this is an example of an irresponsible approach to crime statistics. Even if murders were down everywhere, the media could still designate a “murder capital” referring to whatever city had the most murders.

Free apps from the US government

Parade provides a list of smartphone applications that are free for download from the United States government. From the Parade list and the online list at USA.gov, two of the useful and interesting options:

Recalls.gov Enter any food, medicine, or product to learn whether it has been the subject of a safety recall. [I’ve wondered how consumers are supposed to know whether an item is recalled or not. An app like this could be very useful.]

My Food-a-Pedia Type in any food to see how many calories it has and which food-pyramid requirements it fulfills. [Sounds like good basic nutrition information.]

I can’t imagine this app will get too much use:

Alternative Fuel Locator Looking for a tankful of bio-diesel? This app will show you the way to the nearest station. [Perhaps not enough bio-diesel users out there.]

And I’m not sure what users will think of these two:

FBI’s Most Wanted Browse a list of the country’s most dangerous fugitives and submit a tip from your phone if you spot one of the criminals. [Could be a way to kill time – or confirm one’s suspicions about the shifty guy on the subway.]

NASA App [Could be really cool – or a bunch of bureaucratic stuff.]

Not owning a smartphone, I haven’t spent any time browsing the application stores to see what is available. But if the government has jumped into the game, it sounds like we are well on our way to having many more apps…