Trump will find it hard to col­lect stats on im­mi­grant crime.

Crim­i­nol­o­gist Philip M. Stinson says the fed­eral gov­ern­ment al­ready strug­gles to get re­li­able fig­ures

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @philstin­son

Pres­i­dent Trump wants the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to start pub­lish­ing weekly lists of crimes com­mit­ted by un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants. An ex­ec­u­tive or­der on “En­hanc­ing Pub­lic Safety in the In­te­rior of the United States” that Trump signed last month calls for the re­ports, which would also iden­tify “sanc­tu­ary ju­ris­dic­tions,” cities and coun­ties where lo­cal law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties don’t re­port im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus vi­o­la­tions to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

But from my own work build­ing a na­tional data­base of crimes by po­lice of­fi­cers, I’ve learned that col­lect­ing and dis­tribut­ing re­li­able stats in real time may be much harder than Trump thinks. Es­pe­cially for an ad­min­is­tra­tion that seems to have lit­tle re­gard for facts, good data or sci­en­tific in­tegrity.

Trump reg­u­larly claimed in last year’s cam­paign that crime was worse than it re­ally is, and he has con­tin­ued to do so as pres­i­dent. “The mur­der rate in our coun­try is the high­est it’s been in 47 years,” Trump said Tues­day in a meet­ing with county sher­iffs at the White House. “. . . I’d say that in a speech and ev­ery­body was sur­prised, be­cause the press doesn’t tell it like it is. It wasn’t to their ad­van­tage to say that.” By the FBI’s count, the mur­der rate is ac­tu­ally near its low­est point of the past five decades. The same day, White House aides in­sisted that the me­dia had ig­nored or un­der­re­ported 78 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, some of which had been among the big­gest news sto­ries of the past few years. A few weeks ear­lier, Trump claimed that “in Philadel­phia, the mur­der rate has been steady — I mean just ter­ri­bly in­creas­ing.” That, too, was false.

Pres­i­dents from both par­ties have used scary rhetoric for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses to tell us about some “most im­por­tant prob­lem” fac­ing the na­tion dur­ing the war on crime and the war on drugs. But Trump’s White House seems de­ter­mined to cre­ate con­fu­sion and un­cer­tainty about crime and pub­lic safety, in­sist­ing that there’s far more dan­ger than the data re­ally shows. With the weekly re­port of crimes by un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, for in­stance, Trump seems to be as­sum­ing that such crimes are fre­quent and mostly take place in sanc­tu­ary ju­ris­dic­tions. In fact, re­search has con­sis­tently shown that im­mi­gra­tion is of­ten associated with lower crime rates in some of the most dis­ad­van­taged ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods across the coun­try. Be­sides, an ar­rested per­son’s im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus is of­ten not known at the time of ar­rest. It is not clear what trust­wor­thy statis­tics are avail­able that would pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion re­quired by the or­der, or even how it would be col­lected.

Col­lect­ing re­li­able crime data from state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments is com­pli­cated. I have stud­ied po­lice crime for the past 13 years. The gov­ern­ment’s in­abil­ity to col­lect data prompted me to set up my own data­base of po­lice mis­con­duct, and some of my re­search has been funded by the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Jus­tice. I also worked with The Wash­ing­ton Post on its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion of po­lice shoot­ings. My data­base in­cludes news re­ports of more than 10,600 state and lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cers who have been ar­rested since the be­gin­ning of 2005. The back­bone of my ef­forts are 48 Google alerts that I cre­ated more than a decade ago, when I re­al­ized that the Jus­tice Depart­ment did not col­lect and ag­gre­gate re­li­able na­tion­wide fig­ures on po­lice mis­con­duct. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment can­not tell us how many of­fi­cers dur­ing that time pe­riod have been ar­rested on mur­der or man­slaugh­ter charges re­sult­ing from on-duty shoot­ings. But I can: In the past 12 years, 79 on-duty po­lice of­fi­cers across the coun­try have been ar­rested for shoot­ing and killing some­one. Only 27 of those of­fi­cers have been con­victed (14 by jury tri­als and 13 by guilty pleas). The process that starts with data col­lec­tion in my re­search lab also in­volves te­dious tri­an­gu­la­tion of sources over sev­eral years for each ar­rest case to ver­ify the va­lid­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity of my data prior to full anal­y­sis.

Fed­eral crime data col­lec­tion re­lies on vol­un­tary self-re­port­ing to the Jus­tice Depart­ment by state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies. And Wash­ing­ton has long demon­strated an in­abil­ity to com­pile it, even when the law man­dates such col­lec­tion. For ex­am­ple, the Vi­o­lent Crime Con­trol and Law En­force­ment Act of 1994 re­quired the at­tor­ney gen­eral to pub­lish annual re­ports on the use of ex­ces­sive force by po­lice. Those ef­forts failed largely be­cause com­pli­ance was vol­un­tary, and many state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies did not par­tic­i­pate. Within just a few years and with no con­se­quences, the Jus­tice Depart­ment aban­doned ef­forts to com­ply with the law. The type of data re­quired by the statute on ex­ces­sive force sim­ply isn’t col­lected in any us­able form by most of the more than 18,000 state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies across the United States. And where it is col­lected, agen­cies are of­ten re­luc­tant to re­port it be­cause they don’t want the feds to see them as a prob­lem.

That isn’t the only time the gov­ern­ment failed to col­lect data that the law seemed to re­quire. Peo­ple con­victed of cer­tain crimes of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence are pro­hib­ited by the fed­eral Gun Con­trol Act from own­ing or pos­sess­ing firearms and am­mu­ni­tion. Yet there is no na­tion­wide pro­gram to stan­dard­ize the re­port­ing of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence mis­de­meanor con­vic­tions to the data­bases used to con­duct gun back­ground checks. Lo­cal court con­vic­tion records in­clude many cases of mis­de­meanor as­sault, but it is of­ten im­pos­si­ble to de­ter­mine whether the cases in­volved do­mes­tic vi­o­lence with­out re­view­ing court charg­ing doc­u­ments, pros­e­cu­tor files and po­lice re­ports on a case-by-case ba­sis. The re­sult, ac­cord­ing to the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, has been that many peo­ple with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence crim­i­nal records have es­caped scru­tiny in back­ground checks and pur­chased firearms il­le­gally.

Un­til 2015, when the FBI an­nounced that it would be­gin its own data­base of po­lice shoot­ings, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment didn’t even know how many peo­ple were killed by po­lice of­fi­cers in any given month or year. FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey ad­mit­ted then that that sit­u­a­tion was “em­bar­rass­ing and ridicu­lous.” Only 3 per­cent of state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies com­ply with ef­forts to col­lect data on peo­ple killed by po­lice, he said. Fed­eral law re­quires states to gather data and re­port to the Jus­tice Depart­ment on all deaths that oc­cur dur­ing in­ter­ac­tions with law en­force­ment per­son­nel. But many states rou­tinely un­der­re­port the to­tal, partly be­cause a lot of lo­cal agen­cies sim­ply do not com­plete the pa­per­work; a Bu­reau of Jus­tice Statis­tics study in De­cem­ber es­ti­mated that as many as 25 per­cent of agen­cies didn’t re­spond to sur­veys or provde full an­swers. About seven years ago, Mary­land went so far as to de­velop al­ter­na­tive col­lec­tion tech­niques, search­ing lo­cal news­pa­pers to find in-cus­tody deaths that had not been re­ported by po­lice. More re­cently, in 2015, the Bu­reau of Jus­tice Statis­tics re­designed data col­lec­tion ef­forts for its ar­rest-re­lated deaths pro­gram to in­clude news ar­ti­cles and me­dia re­ports. Pre­lim­i­nary find­ings in­di­cate what we al­ready knew: Tra­di­tional data col­lec­tion ef­forts from state and lo­cal law en­force­ment agen­cies re­sult in gross un­der­re­port­ing of crime data.

The gov­ern­ment al­ready does such a bad job of col­lect­ing vi­tal data that start­ing a new weekly re­port — in­volv­ing statis­tics that no agency is likely to be keep­ing, in or­der to prove a po­lit­i­cal point — is the last thing it should be at­tempt­ing. Fo­cus­ing on the ar­eas where past data col­lec­tion ef­forts re­quired by statute have failed should be the pri­or­ity. All too of­ten, crim­i­nal jus­tice pol­icy is driven by out­liers, to the detri­ment of re­search and data col­lec­tion poli­cies that would pro­vide far more sub­stan­tive knowl­edge about il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Trump’s or­der does get one thing right: It is im­por­tant that Amer­i­cans be prop­erly in­formed about pub­lic safety threats. But he seems to be look­ing for a scape­goat more than a so­lu­tion. “I want you to turn in the bad ones,” he told po­lice chiefs Wed­nes­day, speak­ing of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants, whom he called “the il­le­gals.” “We’ll get them out of our coun­try and bring them back where they came from, and we’ll do it fast. You have to call up the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, Home­land Se­cu­rity, be­cause so much of the prob­lems . . . are caused by gang mem­bers, many of whom are not even legally in our coun­try.”

Avail­able crime data does not sup­port many of Trump’s claims, and his con­tin­ual mis­use of crime statis­tics is reck­less and bizarre. In the end, it’s sim­ply bad crime pol­icy. Philip M. Stinson is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of crim­i­nal jus­tice at Bowl­ing Green State University.

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