May 14, 2003

May 14, 2003 | Commentary on Crime

Why Suppress "Cops" Data?

You know something strange is afoot when Washington politicians and bureaucrats use tax dollars to pay for a study they say proves their anti-crime program works but refuse to make public the data behind that study.

That's what Justice Department officials did for almost a year and a half. They relented only recently, after receiving multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests, letters and telephone calls from outraged congressmen and appeals to Attorney General John Ashcroft. In the process, those officials thumbed their noses at the peoples' right to know what their government is doing and what it costs.

Here's the background: President Clinton claimed in 2000 that his Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program to put 100,000 new policemen on the streets of America was responsible for the dramatic decrease in crime in recent years.

In May 2001, The Heritage Foundation published a study -- "Do Community Oriented Policy Service Grants Affect Violent Crime Rates?" -- that used a statistical model to test the effect of COPS hiring grants on crime. The study found those grants didn't reduce violent crime.

Soon thereafter, the Justice Department COPS office requested the dataset for the Heritage study and got it -- within 12 minutes. Why the prompt response? Because Heritage strongly supports rigorous peer reviewing and methodological transparency in such studies. Such openness is all the more important when -- as is the case with the Justice Department's study -- they're funded with tax dollars and used to define public policy.

A few months later, the COPS office paid at least $156,000 to professors Jihong Zhao of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Quint Thurman at Southwest Texas State University for a study that concluded COPS grants helped reduce violent crime. Both the Heritage study and Zhao/Thurman COPS study were presented at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee meeting in December 2001.

Heritage officials informally asked for the datasets from the Zhao/Thurman COPS study shortly thereafter. When those informal requests were ignored and then denied, we submitted an FOI request to the Justice Department in April 2002 seeking the datasets and supporting documentation of how the government selected professors Zhao and Thurman and what they were asked to do. Some minor documents were provided, but the COPS office refused to provide the datasets or any of the supporting documentation.

Months of letters and telephone calls from interested members of Congress ensued as COPS officials came up with excuse after excuse not to make the datasets and documentation public. Things reached the absurd earlier this year when the COPS office claimed it was really up to the professors to decide whether to make the material public -- and the professors in turn claimed that they were told by the government not to release the material until the grant expired sometime in the future!

Why should the average American care about what might, on the surface, look like a boring game of inside baseball between some bureaucrats and a Washington think tank? Because fighting crime is among government's most vital jobs, and the public deserves to know how officials are handling or mis-handling their duties. That's why we have an FOI law.

Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year on studies of everything from growing apples to mining zinc. The $156,000 professors Zhao and Thurman were paid might seem like a drop in the bucket, but Justice Department officials have told Congress, the news media and the American people that their study justifies spending more billions of tax dollars on COPS.

Does it? We don't know yet. It will take a long time to sift through all the data we received and see if it truly supports the Justice Department's contention. But if the study really does prove the COPS program works, why were federal officials so determined for so long to keep anybody else from doing the kind of fact-checking and peer-review routinely expected of credible researchers on campus and in corporations?

Here's the solution: Amend the FOI law to require full public disclosure of all datasets and documentation of all studies as soon as they are completed and submitted to the government agency that requested them. That way, the people can hold the officials' feet to the fire of public accountability without having to jump through senseless bureaucratic hoops.

Mark Tapscott, a former newspaper journalist, is director of media services for The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington public policy think-tank.

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