The Politics of United States Police Statistics –

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Monique Newton, covers the new article by Scott J. Cook, Texas A&M University, and David Fortunato,University of California, San Diego, and Copenhagen Business School: “The Politics of Police Data: State Legislative Capacity and the Transparency of State and Substate Agencies”. 

The Politics of United States Police Statistics –In recent years the validity of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been called into question. The UCR program serves as a national repository for crime data collected by law enforcement. Each year, the UCR provides every police agency in the U.S. with a detailed framework for reporting crime. However, participation by law enforcement in this program is voluntary, with many agencies choosing not to participate. Even when they do participate, evidence suggests there is often reason to doubt the accuracy of the provided data.

In their recent APSR article, Scott Cook and David Fortunato suggest that state government can play a key role in improving crime reporting. Cook and Fortunato argue that well-resourced legislatures 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 will be found out (due to oversight) and punished (due to budgeting), so they are more likely to report transparently on their behaviors. The authors find strong evidence consistent with this, demonstrating that legislative capacity increases the validity of the data provided by state, county, and municipal agencies.

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

“This suggests a path toward higher quality data, with state legislatures playing a central role in compelling police to provide more accurate accounts of their behavior.” The second part of the study focuses on the shortcomings of the UCR estimates of killings by police. Cook and Fortunato examine bias in the reporting of police killings by comparing the UCR official statistics and several crowd-sourced initiatives, including: The Guardian’s The Counted (2015–2016), The Washington Post’s Fatal Force (2015– 2016), Mapping Police Violence (2013–2016), Killed by Police (2014–2016), and Fatal Encounters (2013– 2016). Collectively these sources represent the best available estimates on the extent of police killings, demonstrating that official statistics fail to include as many as half of the killings by police. In their analysis of these data, Cook and Fortunato find striking differences in the degree of underreporting of police killings across the United States, again with more accurate accounts coming from states with higher capacity legislatures.

These findings suggest that official statistics on crime and policing are systematically biased and cannot be taken at face value. However, Cook and Fortunato find evidence consistent with their argument that state legislatures can direct their power down to the local level and, in so doing, increase the transparency of substate agencies such as the police. This suggests a path toward higher quality data, with state legislatures playing a central role in compelling police to provide more accurate accounts of their behavior. Improving these data is essential for an accurate understanding of crime in the U.S. and its determinants. The authors highlight the importance of understanding how the data that researchers, policymakers, and local agencies utilize daily is produced. Not only is this important for better understanding these outcomes, but the political process shaping these data warrants further explanation.

  • Monique Newton is a 4th-year Ph.D. Candidate in 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-method scholar, she employs ethnographic, interview, survey, and experimental methods to examine Black political behavior in American cities in the United States. Her dissertation project explores how Black neighborhoods in the United States respond to the killings of Black Americans by police officers. She currently resides in Chicago, IL.
  • COOK, SCOTT J., and DAVID FORTUNATO. 2022. “The Politics of Police Data: State Legislative Capacity and the Transparency of State and Substate Agencies.” American Political Science Review, 
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.

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