The Politics of United States Police Statistics –

In the APSA Public Fellowships Program, political science graduate students prepare abstracts of new research for the American Political Science Review. This piece written by Monique Newton, includes a new article by Scott J. Cook of Texas A&M University and David Fortunato of the University of California, San Diego and Copenhagen Business School.: “Policing Data Policy: State Legislative Capacity and State and Sub-State Transparency.”

In recent years, the validity of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been questioned. The UCR program is a national repository of crime data collected by law enforcement. Each year, UCR provides a comprehensive crime reporting system to every police agency in the United States. However, law enforcement participation in this program is voluntary, as many agencies choose not to participate. Even when they are involved, the evidence shows that there is often reason to doubt the accuracy of the data provided.

Their recent APSR In the article, Scott Cook and David Fortunato argue that state governments can play a key role in improving crime reporting. Cook and Fortunato argue that well-resourced lawmakers can use their oversight and budgeting powers to increase the transparency of agencies, including police, at the county and municipal levels. Simply put, local agencies in these states are more concerned that any data manipulation is detected (due to oversight) and punished (due to budgeting), and are therefore more likely to report their behavior transparently. The authors find strong supporting evidence showing that legislative capacity increases the reliability of data provided by state, county, and municipal agencies.

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In the largest analysis of agency-level police data to date, Cook and Fortunato analyze the administrative records of 19,095 state, county, and municipal police agencies in 50 states from 1960 to 2017. The first part of the investigation focuses on whether the agency provided any information in response to UCR’s data request. They find systematic variation in UCR participation across states, with agencies in states with greater legislative capacity being much more likely to participate.

“This points the way to higher-quality data, and state legislators have a key role to play in forcing police to provide more accurate reports of their behavior.” The second part of the study focuses on the shortcomings of UCR’s estimates of police killings. Cook and Fortunato examine bias in the reporting of police killings by comparing UCR’s official statistics and several crowd-sourced initiatives, including: The Guardian Counted (2015-2016), The Washington Post. Fatal force (2015-2016), Map of police violence (2013-2016), Killed by the police (2014-2016), and Fateful meetings (2013-2016). All of these sources represent the best available estimates of the extent of police killings, showing that official statistics do not capture even half of the killings by police. Analyzing this data, Cook and Fortunato found stark differences between the underreporting of police killings in the United States and the more accurate reporting that comes from states with higher-powered legislatures.

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These findings suggest that official crime and police statistics are systematically biased and cannot be taken at face value. However, Cook and Fortunato find evidence consistent with their argument that state legislatures can shift their power to the local level, thereby increasing the transparency of substate agencies such as the police. It points the way to higher-quality data, and state lawmakers are playing a key role in forcing police to provide more accurate reports of their behavior. In order to accurately understand crime in the United States and its determinants, it is necessary to improve these data. The authors emphasize the importance of understanding how the data used by researchers, policymakers, and local agencies are produced every day. Not only is this important for better understanding these results, but the political process shaping these data requires further explanation.

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  • Monique Newton is a 4th-year Ph.D. Candidate of the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, where she studies American politics and political methodology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of urban politics, race and ethnic politics, political behavior, and political psychology. A mixed-methods scholar, she uses ethnographic, interview, survey, and experimental methods to examine the political behavior of blacks in urban America. Her dissertation project examines how black neighborhoods in the US respond to police killings of black Americans. She currently resides in Chicago, IL.
  • COOK, SCOTT J., and DAVID FORTUNATO. 2022″.Police Data Policy: State Legislative Capacity and State and Sub-State Transparency. American Political Science Review,
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.


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