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The FBI’s Explanation For Why It Released Less Crime Data Doesn’t Add Up

Late last month, FiveThirtyEight published an article that noted that the FBI’s most recent accounting of crime data in the United States was missing almost 70 percent of the data tables that had been included in past editions. The FBI has since disputed that the removal of those tables was out of the ordinary. But closer scrutiny doesn’t seem to bear this claim out.

In our earlier story, FiveThirtyEight reported that a large number of year-to-year data tables that typically appear in the FBI’s Crime in the United States Report had been removed in the most recent edition, which covers data from 2016 and is the first report of its kind published during the Trump administration. The yearly report is considered the gold standard of crime-trend tracking and is used by law enforcement, researchers, journalists and the general public. Changes to the structure of the report typically go through a body called the Advisory Policy Board (APB), which is responsible for managing and reviewing operational issues for a number of FBI programs. But this change was not reviewed by the APB. One former FBI employee told FiveThirtyEight the decision not to consult with the APB was “shocking.”

Following our story’s publication, the FBI informed FiveThirtyEight that it took issue with what Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle called “a false narrative.” The agency also publicly posted a statement on the data tables in the report, titled “Understanding Changes in ‘Crime in the United States, 2016.’” The statement, which was published about a month after the data was initially released, noted that the FBI “has been working on what has become the UCR-Technical Refresh since 2010” and that “throughout the planning of this project, it has been the intention of the UCR program to streamline the publications, including Crime in the United States (CIUS), and to reduce the number of data tables in the reports.”

But while the FBI says the plan to remove data tables had been in place since 2010, state-level UCR managers do not seem to have been informed of it until late 2016. “State UCR Program managers were advised of the FBI’s plan in the fall of 2016 through individual teleconferences,” Hornbuckle said in an email.

While it’s true that the FBI is on record saying it hoped to improve the report, the FBI had not publicly included the removal of data tables as part of those improvements until the statement it released following the FiveThirtyEight story. Instead, the FBI’s past statements said the agency aimed only to make data available more quickly and to improve digital features to allow users to access more data more easily.

The UCR-Technical Refresh page that the FBI links to in its statement asserting that the intention of the project has always included reducing the number of data tables, appears to have been created only relatively recently. A search through the Internet Archive fails to retrieve a cache of the page, suggesting a relatively new URL.

What does appear to have been referenced as early as 2010 is what was called “the UCR Redevelopment Project.” In 2010, the FBI described the goals of the UCR Redevelopment Project as: “decrease the time it takes to analyze data,” “reduce … the exchange of printed materials,” “provide an enhanced external data query tool,” and “decrease the time needed to release and publish crime data.”

In essence, the UCR Redevelopment Project appeared to largely be concerned with improving the process by which agencies submit data to the FBI, along with creating a tool for analyzing the data. This intended direction can be seen in project updates from March 2013 and December 2013.

In September 2016 the project became the “New UCR Project,” which had the stated goal “to manage the acquisition, development, and integration of a new and improved data collection system.” Sometime between September and October 2017, the New UCR Project became the UCR-Technical Refresh, though the overarching goals seem identical to its previous iterations.

While it is possible that reducing the number of available data tables was always a goal of the UCR Redevelopment Project, we were unable to identify any evidence of this objective in any publicly available publications or presentations on the subject. On the contrary, this project appears designed to improve the speed and efficiency with which law enforcement data can be submitted, processed and provided to the public.

A digital presentation dated April of 2012 describes the technical changes to the project with no mention of removing data tables. The earliest webpage reference to the project appears to be from March 2013, and it largely details technical upgrades intended to improve reporting from local law enforcement agencies to the FBI. The Internet Archive’s last capture of the site came as recently as May of 2016. We reviewed the documents and found no mentions of removing data tables in any of these iterations.

The April 2016 update lays out the plan in more detail. Of note is the last bullet point, which says, “We will continue to keep the APB and the broader UCR Program stakeholders apprised of our status as we work toward successful implementation of the new UCR System.” The APB was ultimately not involved in the decision to remove data tables from the 2016 report, but rather the tables were removed after consultation with the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

In a capture of the page that includes an update from February of 2017, the project is noted to have moved from development to implementation. One of its stated goals is to “provide a streamlined publication process that will give users quicker access to the data,” though it again makes no reference to data table removal.

When the New UCR Project became what is now called the UCR-Technical Refresh this fall, The FBI published a page devoted to the Technical Refresh that has very few details of the plan. But there is a change to wording that is striking.

One bullet-pointed goal of the project that once read, “Provide a streamlined publication process that will give users quicker access to the data,” now reads as two bullet points: “Provide a streamlined publication process” and “Provide users swifter access to the data.”

That may seem insignificant, but that grammatical sleight of hand could mean that the FBI is looking to justify a new interpretation of what it means to “streamline” the publication process. Rather than streamline by providing users swifter access to the data, perhaps the FBI is now looking to streamline by decreasing the amount of data they provide. Given that the FBI has not yet responded to further requests for comment, we’re left to read between the lines.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Jeff Asher is based in New Orleans and used to work for the city as a crime analyst. He currently does crime analysis for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office and runs the NOLA Crime News data analysis blog.