FBI crime-reporting audits are shallow, infrequent

The FBI’s crime reporting program is considered the final word on crime trends in the United States, but the agency rarely audits police agencies providing the information and when it does its reviews are too cursory to identify deep flaws.

In each of the past five years, FBI auditors have reviewed crime statistics at less than 1% of the roughly 17,000 departments that report data, a Journal Sentinel examination of FBI records has found. In all, they’ve audited as many as 652 police agencies during that time, or less than 4% of the total.

That lack of scrutiny allows cases of undercounting of crimes, such as in Milwaukee where thousands of violent assaults were not included in the crime rate since 2006, to go unnoticed and gives the public a false sense of the true level of crime, criminal justice experts said.

Faulty crime data has far greater implications than just numbers on a spreadsheet, said John Eterno, director of the graduate criminal justice program at Molloy College in Long Island, N.Y. For example, police departments use the statistics to develop crime-fighting strategies and make hiring decisions.

CompStat is used to hold police commanders accountable for crime trends in their districts – they must answer to the police chief and high-ranking officials at monthly meetings about performance metrics such as arrests, traffic stops and crime figures.

Eterno said performance management systems like this can unintentionally provide motivation for police supervisors to downgrade crime.



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