The Founding Fathers of the United States were a group that valued the use of empirical data to guide decisions. In the constitution they chose to use a population census to re-align the House of Representatives every ten years to reflect the expected shifts and growth of population across the growing number of states. They increased the amount of information collected in that decennial census to inform the emerging new nation about the distribution of property ownership, occupational mixes, household conditions, etc.
Over the decades statistical information collected by Federal statistical agencies has formed the core information infrastructure of the country. It is the very cornerstone of the informed citizenry. It provides the information on how well we’re doing as a country. It informs us about how well the elected officials are doing in their leadership.
This infrastructure is valuable to the extent that it is objective, not affected by the political philosophy of the current elected officials. It’s valuable to the extent that it is an accurate portrayal of reality, using state of the art methods to collect data. It’s useful to the extent that it contains consistent indicators, comparable over time (to detect change in key phenomena). It’s helpful to the extent that it reflects key concerns of the society.
This infrastructure is a fragile one; the agencies that provide the objective information often must report that things are not going as well as those elected to office would hope they are. Over the years their budgets have suffered and some key statistical indicators have been dropped. In that sense, we know less than we did earlier.
These concerns arose recently with the current set of violent deaths involving police and African-American citizens. The last weeks have seen both citizen deaths and police deaths. FBI Director Comey, in a recent testimony to a Senate committee said, “We need more and better data related to officer-involved shootings and altercations with the citizens we serve, attacks against law enforcement officers, and criminal activity of all kinds.”
In the early 1970’s there was an effort to supplement police-reported crimes with a statistical series that was based on the notion that police-reported crimes were not accurate counts of events that violate laws. They were based on a reporting system internal to departments; they required the processing of descriptions of events that were likely to be judged as criminal violations by the justice system. There were many reasons that events were “unfounded,” deemed not reportable. To supplement these official reports, victimization survey methods were developed, that asked individual persons whether they had experienced what they thought was a criminate victimization, whether or not it was reported to the police.
But because of the relatively small size of the victimization surveys, relatively rare events are not well estimated. Again, Director Comey: “We in the FBI track and publish the number of “justifiable homicides” by police officers. But such reporting by police departments across the country is not mandatory, and perhaps lacks sufficient incentive, so not all departments participate. The result is that currently we cannot fully track incidents involving use of force by police. And while the ‘Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted’ report tracks the number of officers killed in the line of duty, we do not have a firm grasp on the numbers of officers assaulted in the line of duty. We cannot address concerns about officer-involved shootings if we do not know the circumstances surrounding such incidents.”
There are ongoing efforts to improve the consistency and content of police-reported criminal events. A new system of bottom-up reporting is in place but the rate of participation of local jurisdictions is lower than desirable. This prompted researchers to collect their own data from jurisdictions. The data come from only twelve jurisdictions among the thousands of jurisdictions in the country. They are jurisdictions that voluntarily cooperated. They do not represent in any statistically-meaningful way the full population.
In the absence of data that are strongly representative of the full population, it’s common that any data available will be used to draw conclusions about what is happening in our country. This is not always desirable. In this case, twelve jurisdictions form interesting case studies but solid conclusions about national phenomena need richer data. While the researchers should be credited with assembling such data, the nation really deserves consistent and comprehensive attention to assembling such statistical information.
Time has shown that this is best done with a Federal statistical agency that has strong devotion to data quality and complete objectivity.