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