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How One Quiet DOJ Appointment Could Undermine the Push for Meaningful Police Reform

Jeffrey Anderson's relative dearth of experience comes at a critical time for the Department of Justice.
The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C.

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C.

In the months since President Donald Trump's inauguration, the administration has waged a war on fact-based reality, from climate denialism in the face of overwhelming data to equivocating over white supremacists to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' stubborn crusade against marijuana legalization. And now, with the public distracted by the president's refusal to denounce Alabama Senate hopeful and alleged child molester Roy Moore, an overlooked appointment within the Department of Justice (DOJ) could fundamentally destroy years of work toward meaningful police reform.

On November 21st, the White House quietly announced the appointment of Jeffrey Anderson, a United States Air Force Academy professor and Hudson Institute senior fellow, as director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Anderson may seem like a typical Trump administration acolyte—the White House had previously made him director of the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services, a role responsible for shaping Congress' repeal-and-replace efforts—but his appointment suggests something more troubling than Sessions' overt attempts to throw the brakes on criminal justice reform: an about-face on the Obama-era DOJ's focus on data collection, which defined governmental conversations around racial bias and law enforcement after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

It's hard to overstate the essential role BJS plays in informing broader policy conversations around the U.S. criminal justice system. The bureau is the principal federal agency responsible for collecting and analyzing crime data. It also publishes the National Crime Victimization Survey, considered to be the most comprehensive measure of violent crime nationally. That places the agency in the crosshairs when it comes to the issue of racial profiling among state and local law enforcement agencies. In 2005, President George W. Bush fired Lawrence Greenfeld from the director role over a major study that found "disparities in how racial groups were treated once they were stopped by the police"; The Weekly Standard characterized the firing as the administration's attempt to "deny publicity to uncomfortable facts" produced by "a model federal agency," a political scuffle that underscored the bureau's role as a nexus of policy power.

Greenfeld at least was a career criminal justice statistician with a spotless 23-year track record at the BJS. But Anderson does not possess the same bona fides: As the Crime Report, a criminal justice outlet published by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, pointed out on Wednesday, the only significant statistical experience detailed in the White House announcement on this "leader in formulating domestic policy proposals" was his co-founding of a company that focused his computing prowess on an all-American time-waster: college football stats. In May, Greenfeld and three other former BJS directors from the Bush and Obama administrations authored a letter to Sessions encouraging him to select for the then-vacant role a candidate who possesses "strong leadership, management, and scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products ... [and] visibility in the nation's statistical community." Anderson's most recent contributions to the American statistical community, beyond his work "advanc[ing] creative proposals, including Main Street-oriented health care, tax, and immigration reform" as executive director of conservative advocacy group 2017 Project, consists of a semi-regular Billy Beane impression for, ironically, The Weekly Standard.

Anderson's relative dearth of experience comes at a critical time for the DOJ. The 2014 protests in Ferguson and resulting backlash against police brutality revealed that federal law enforcement agencies don't maintain consistent data on police shootings of unarmed civilians: A report by the Wall Street Journal suggested that, while more than 100 of the nation's largest police departments reported some 1,800 police killings in internal documents between 2007 and 2012, independent analysis recorded some 2,400 fatalities. (Even worse, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's tally registered only 1,242 fatalities during the same period.) Uniform Crime Reporting data from 2009 to 2013 showed an average of 420 "justifiable homicides" annually, but multiple independent investigations found hundreds more that simply went uncounted.

Incomplete data makes it impossible to truly understand—and, in turn, address—the scope of racial bias in law enforcement. How can lawmakers and policy experts engineer legislation to address a problem across several distinct political and bureaucratic regimes if they have no idea what they're dealing with in the first place?

Jeffrey H. Anderson.

Jeffrey H. Anderson.

Indeed, the years leading up to Trump's inauguration were marked by a stretch of methodological soul-searching on the part of the DOJ. In an announcement accompanying the release of the UCR in September of 2015, following months of accelerated data requests from local law enforcement in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests, then-FBI Director James Comey pledged that the agency would formally gather more complete statistics on police shootings in coming years. "Once we receive this data, we will add a special publication that focuses on law enforcement's use of force in shooting incidents," Comey said at the time. "We hope this information ... will help to dispel misperceptions, foster accountability and promote transparency in how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve."

This is what makes the BJS so crucial: Of all the agencies with the DOJ, it alone helps shape the language and terminology that policymakers use to conceive of, and then address, major public policy issues. The discontinuity between the NCVS and the UCR itself is bad enough: According to the FBI's 2015 UCR data, violent crimes jumped 3.9 percent that year, with murders in particular jumping an astonishing 10.8 percent—a morsel of information that might prove fine ammo for Trump and Sessions' "law and order" scare tactics despite the overall decline of violent victimization detailed in the NCVS. Data doesn't lie, but it does confuse.

Comey's announcement was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of addressing the DOJ's data collection woes. A March of 2016 report in the American Journal of Public Health found that police killings are dramatically underreported in the most commonly used statistical databases; the National Violent Death Reporting System established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 presents a potential alternative, but its effectiveness is subject to the Dickey Amendment, which restricts funding on gun violence research by the agency. And, as of June of 2017, the FBI had identified 120 federal agencies that failed to submit data to the bureau's national hate crimes database.

It's unclear whether Anderson will promulgate the same counterfactual mentality embodied by Sessions. Given the the subpar state of agency statistics, the BJS needs a leader with the statistical and mathematical imagination to creatively attack the question of police brutality in the U.S. There's little evidence Anderson is that guy.