Fairfax County Police Chief Ed Roessler speaks to journalists at the Vienna metro station in Vienna, Va., Sunday, Aug. 12, 2018. A contingent of white nationalists had arrived there earlier to travel to Washington to rally on the first anniversary of their rally in Charlottesville. Credit: AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz

New Orleans – The FBI will fast-track a fix to address flaws in its uniform crime report and is expected to change reporting rules to encourage more transparency about the outcomes of investigations by local law enforcement agencies, following a yearlong investigation by Newsy, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica.

The investigation uncovered a major flaw in the FBI’s next-generation crime reporting system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System. The new system does not track cases police classify as “unfounded,” a category for when police say the victim is lying or the reported crime did not occur.

In our November investigation, we found that the FBI reports zero unfounded cases for thousands of agencies using the new system, although records from those agencies show they classify many cases this way.

For example, the Prince William County Police Department in Virginia showed no unfounded cases in the FBI crime statistics for 2016. However, internal department records show that Prince William County police classified nearly 40 percent of all rape cases as unfounded that year.  

“You have found something that needs to be corrected,” said Col. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., chairman of the FBI’s NIBRS transition task force, and chief of police in Fairfax County, Virginia. “This is a crisis, an emergency.”

Roessler said following the news report, he reached out to senior FBI leadership and received a commitment from the bureau last week that the FBI would move swiftly and bypass its typically lengthy requirements for advance notice to consider major policy changes. It’s unclear how exactly the system will change to reflect rape cases classified as unfounded. Roessler said one possibility being discussed is to require police agencies to not only disclose the cases they classify as unfounded, but also the reasons they’ve done so.  

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“Because of the importance of the “unfounded data” issue, this topic has been inserted into the next round and will go before the semi-annual board in June,” said FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer.

“This is lightning fast compared to how this usually works,” said Erica Smith, chief of the incident-based reporting unit for the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

When reporters first brought the flaw to Smith’s attention, she called dropping unfounded cases from the data collection unacceptable. She has since had multiple calls with FBI officials urging they address the issue and investigate whether misleading information is being released to the public.

At a meeting of the FBI Advisory Policy Board this week in New Orleans, Col. Doug Middleton, the chairman of the Uniform Crime Reporting subcommittee, said that the FBI is assessing system changes in the “near future” to correct the misleading zeros currently entered into UCR data for agencies that report to NIBRS. This spring, when the board’s working groups meet, a paper will be presented to discuss changes to the NIBRS data collection to “better reflect the resolution of crimes coming to the attention of law enforcement.”

“Some attention has been brought to unfounding and clearing offense data,” Middleton told the board. “The FBI acknowledges these concerns as more agencies move to NIBRS data collection and they are going to move to address this issue.”

Mitch Beemer, the incoming president of the Association of State Uniform Crime Reporting Programs and the incident-based reporting manager for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, told Newsy after the meeting that he thinks his members would support a change to track unfounded cases in the NIBRS data.

“We have a concern as an association about any gaps in data, any gaps in criminal justice data, Beemer said. “It would help us give one more check of our local agencies to see how often it might be occurring.”

Law enforcement agencies have for decades been criticized for misusing the unfounded designation, leading to scandals in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans and elsewhere. An earlier FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics joint task force cited a scandal in Chicago and explicitly recommended that unfounded cases continue to be tracked under the NIBRS system — neither the Bureau of Justice Statistics nor FBI provided an explanation for why the recommendations were not followed when NIBRS was originally implemented in 1989.

Currently, about 40 percent of police agencies across the nation have transitioned to using NIBRS and are affected by the flaw. All police agencies are expected to switch to NIBRS by Jan. 1, 2021.

The FBI is expected to work over the next several months on drafting recommendations to be voted on in June at the next meeting of the full Advisory Policy Board. If approved, the recommendations go to the FBI director for implementation.

Scripps Howard Foundation Journalism Fellows Kenny Jacoby and Sophie Chou contributed to this story.

The reporters can be reached at mark.greenblatt@scripps.com, mark.fahey@scripps.com,  bernice.yeung@propublica.org and eharris@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @greenblattmark, @marktfahey, @bmyeung and @emilygharris.

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Bernice Yeung is a reporter for Reveal, covering race and gender. Her work examines issues related to violence against women, labor and employment, immigration, and environmental health. Yeung was part of the national Emmy-nominated Rape in the Fields reporting team, which investigated the sexual assault of immigrant farmworkers. The project won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Yeung also was the lead reporter for the national Emmy-nominated Rape on the Night Shift team, which examined sexual violence against female janitors. That work won an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, the Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative journalism, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition. Those projects led to ​​her first book in 2018, “In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers.”  

A former staff writer for SF Weekly and editor at California Lawyer magazine, Yeung has had her work appear in a variety of media outlets, including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Guardian and PBS FRONTLINE. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Fordham University, where she studied sociology with a focus on crime and justice. She was a 2015-16 Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan, where she explored ways journalists can use social science survey methods in their reporting. Yeung is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Emily Harris is a former senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She previously served as an NPR international correspondent, based first in Berlin and later in Jerusalem. Her 2016 series on Israelis and Palestinians changing their minds about some aspect of their conflict won the Overseas Press Club’s Lowell Thomas Award, and her 2014 coverage of Gaza was honored with an Overseas Press Club citation. She also was part of the NPR team that won a 2004 Peabody Award for coverage in Iraq. Harris lived in and reported from Russia during the upheaval of the 1990s. In the U.S., she covered a range of beats for NPR’s Washington desk and reported jointly for NPR and PBS’ “Now” with Bill Moyers. Harris helped start and host “Think Out Loud,” a daily public affairs talk show on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She worked to evaluate and share new financial models for journalism as editorial director of the Journalism Accelerator startup. She’s drafted a screenplay about relationships born in war and collects audio stories of awful and mind-changing moments in people’s lives. Harris was based in Portland, Oregon.