By Peter J. Mancuso – Claiming that not enough persons were accessing its crime data, the Sessions-headed Department of Justice (DOJ) recently perpetrated a simple but bizarre act of willful administrative omission that dealt a crippling blow to both American law enforcement and advocates concerned with the quality of our justice systems. According to an October 27 article in FiveThirtyEight by Clare Malone and Jeff Asher, the latest FBI annual report “Crime in the United States,” commonly referred to as the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the first released under the Trump administration’s DOJ, is a ghost of its former-self, with nearly 70% fewer data tables than its immediate predecessor.
This touchstone for America’s law enforcement and criminal justice communities has been so gutted this year as to render it near totally useless. Like so many other endeavors, the devil is in the details and crime analysis is hardly an exception. It took over five decades and the work of thousands of American law enforcement practitioners, criminologists, legal scholars, victim advocates and others to ensure that those critical details would always be available.
The idea that data and comparative charts and graphs can be culled from the report based on some correlation to the number of readers of specific data shows, at best, a dubious oversimplification by the DOJ. Even one, or a handful of readers, devoted to a single crime category, or subset of a category, can generate important questions and subsequent research to refine the collection of that data for future reports. That’s how the UCR was built.
A case in point is the refinement of critical domestic violence data collection. What police officers, medical practitioners and the courts were experiencing every day in terms of violence among persons assaulted or murdered by a person with whom they shared an intimate relationship went well beyond the then UCR’s “traditional” domestic crime category. Research by a relatively few victim advocates eventually lead to the re-definition of “domestic violence” in the UCR which better reflected the true nature and scope of that crime category.
The UCR usually changes to some degree most years, but what was described as “abnormal” by a former FBI employee was that the Bureau did not follow its usual procedure of passing the report through the Advisory Policy Board (APB) but had worked with its press relations unit, the Office of Public Affairs instead.
It should not be the providence for one passing Attorney General, or President for that matter, to substantially diminish the facts and information available to law enforcement policy makers and the academic and advocacy communities that help guide them. This is not to mention lawmakers at every level of government throughout the nation who rely on detailed data to adjust existing laws or make new ones. What could Mr. Sessions possibly be thinking?
Perhaps he was thinking of that time worn expression, knowledge is power, or conversely, lack of knowledge reduces power. They who control information by blocking access to it brandish a powerful weapon to ward off critics, especially from the press. This leaves an information void available for “alternate facts” which are used to achieve political or economic end goals at the same time they create warped public policy.
Across the spectrum of federal governance, this administration is in the business of opening the flood gates for misinformation by blocking real data and facts accumulated by the hard work of tens of thousands of people over years, if not decades. Whether the agencies involved address health and human services, housing, the environment, energy, natural resources, education, immigration or, as in this case, crime and justice, the outcome is the same – missing information. The expertise, career experience, rigorous research, diligence and tenacity of countless dedicated professionals are being rendered meaningless by expunging the results of their work from government and public records.
For those within the FBI, the agency within the DOJ which produces the highly valued UCR, this reduction and devaluation of their venerable publication must be particularly frustrating. They must be feeling a bit of empathy for many of their federal colleagues: scientists; health professionals; educators; park rangers; safety inspectors; and countless others in scores of job categories who are being made intellectual prisoners and irrelevant by this president and his appointed agency heads.
There are no bonfires and no books being flung into the flames by a circle of ravaging supporters, like those of a murderous and suicidal regime some eighty-plus years ago. Matches, paper, gasoline and chanting mobs are not required in the digital age to destroy information and impede the search for knowledge. It’s imperative to remember that it can now all be accomplished by a handful of co-opted government administrators and a fearful or uncaring cadre of bureaucrats sitting in their office cubicles, tapping on their keyboards. Welcome to book burning, twenty-first century style.
Peter J. Mancuso Jr. received his B.A. (’76) and M.A. (’79) in Criminal Justice from John Jay College.