This year's preliminary federal report on crime in the United States, drawn from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting system, is full of good news. Violent crimes decreased by 0.2 percent compared to 2013, continuing a steady decline in nationwide crime rates since a peak in the 1970s and '80s. And despite anxiety over rioting and looting in protest-gripped cities like Ferguson and Baltimore, property crimes fell 4.3 percent since last year. Even sexual assaults showed a slight decrease. America, it seems, is getting safer.
But the goods news isn't in the data; it's in the promise of even more information. In an accompanying announcement, FBI Director James Comey declared that the agency would start collecting more complete data on shootings involving police officers. As of April, the FBI had already begun requesting more data from local police departments as part of a major overhaul of its UCR system. But Comey's statement comes an explicit acknowledgement of the protests that have rocked the nation over the past year:
"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. "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."
While this may seem like an empty platitude, it's an important step in shaping policy regarding the relationship between civilians and law enforcement. Following the surge of activism against police brutality that came in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury verdicts, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal revealed major holes in how the federal government assesses the use of force by law enforcement. While 105 of the nation's largest police departments reported 1,800 police killings in internal documents between 2007 and 2012 (although the FBI's tally was only 1,242 during the same period), the Journal revealed some 2,400 fatalities.
"Justifiable police homicides from 35 of the 105 large agencies contacted by the Journal didn't appear in the FBI records at all," the Journal reported. "Some agencies said they didn't view justifiable homicides by law-enforcement officers as events that should be reported. The Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia, for example, said it didn't consider such cases to be an 'actual offense,' and thus doesn't report them to the FBI." Those 'actual offenses' are normally reported as 'justifiable homicides,' a definition that doesn't necessarily capture every civilian killed by a police officer.
That's a huge problem. Consider that the UCR data from 2009 to 2013 shows an average of 420 justifiable homicides each year. As of this writing, the Guardian's the Counted project shows 871 Americans killed by police; the Washington Post's count is at 738. Regardless of the flaws in each one of the 18,000 police departments surveyed by the UCR, the result is the same: We simply don't know how many people police kill each year. If we don't know how many civilians police kill, how can we effectively craft policy to help restrain police violence? In the wake of the Brown and Garner protests, the Guardian reported that the victims of police violence were twice as likely to be black than they were white. How can the lawmakers care about the black body when, in the eyes of the law, it doesn't exist?
It can't, really. How could politicians design and engineer legislation (let alone pass it ... good luck with that) to address a problem over several different political and bureaucratic regimes without first understanding what they're trying to fix in the first place? This is the fundamental principle of all behavioral science and institutional economics and everything in between: Information rules everything. This, explained Center for Data Innovation Director Daniel Castro in a 2014 memo to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is the fundamental promise of big data for public policy: It simply helps people and organizations "make better decisions," from the operational level to the conceptual, policy-shaping one. A lack of data means a less complete picture of the social challenge at hand, and therefore yields an inefficient response.
The Obama administration, at least, seems to understand what's missing here. Consider the executive order establishing the Behavioral Science Insights Policy Directive, signed by President Obama in September, designed to strengthen the use of behavioral sciences in government institutions, and improve communication between public servants and research institutions. The whole premise of the initiative is that empirical research and data can help craft policy solutions. "Where Federal policies have been designed to reflect behavioral science insights," Obama wrote, "they have substantially improved outcomes for the individuals, families, communities, and businesses those policies serve." It's this impulse, coupled with better infrastructure for data collection and analysis (the foundation of "big data"), that underpins the UCR—and can yield positive results if applied properly.
Here's an example of how this sort of simple change in data collection can actually help Americans by shaping public policy. For nearly 80 years, the UCR's definition of "forcible rape" was "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will," which is both gross and overly specific. In 2012, the Department of Justice updated its language to "penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim," expanding the definition to cover a broader and more inclusive experience of sexual violence for both men and women. The resulting change yielded a 41.7-percent jump in revised rapes in the 2013 UCR data on forcible rape, mostly with regards to the rape of men, sodomy, or sexual assault with an object. This, in turn, drew a spotlight on a host of related problems, including prison rape and military sexual assault. Data gave those people a voice. After all, if the government doesn't see you, you don't exist.
Like police shootings, the change in the way the FBI categorizes sexual assault didn't come from technocrats crafting the next Great Society, but activists who demanded politicians take their woes seriously, simply by acknowledging they exist. Thousands of people demanded to be heard in the eyes of the criminal justice system that is ostensibly meant to serve them; the "Rape Is Rape" campaign in particular, organized by the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine, yielded 160,000 emails to the FBI. Arguably, it's this changed definition that has helped draw attention to the prevalence of sexual assault, especially on college campuses—a problem that's dominated the news for more than a year. But it also helped spur on policy initiatives by giving activists and officials more empirical ammo to work with.
The Black Lives Matter campaign and efforts of other activists over the past year can often seem hopeless in the face of repeated shooting deaths by police officers and the obstacle of law-and-order politics, but Comey's statement reflects a victory that closely mirrors that of the "Rape Is Rape" campaign: In order to be heard, first you must be seen. And in that sense, the FBI's new efforts to understand the true scope and horror of police killings is a huge victory for those in search of a policy solution to the seemingly insurmountable problem of police brutality.