In the FBI’s 2013 Uniform Crime Report, released in November 2014, Alaska reported 648 prostitution arrests: 1 juvenile and 647 adults. This number is up from 38 arrests in 2012 and 69 in 2011. How could prostitution arrests have jumped so much in just one year?
They didn’t. Alaska maintains a report entitled Crime In Alaska, based on the same numbers that are submitted to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Report. In Crime In Alaska 2013, released in 2014, the state reports only 46 prostitution arrests in 2013: 22 sellers and 24 buyers of sex. This number seems correct: the Anchorage Police Department reported 41 prostitution arrests, and the state made five prostitution charges in 2013. Stephen Fischer, an FBI spokesman, explained that the issue was caused by “an error for entering data.”
Just what kind of trouble can 602 imaginary prostitutes created by a typo by the FBI cause?
I spoke with Dr. Allan Barnes, a Professor of Justice at the University of Anchorage, Alaska. He explained that the Uniform Crime Report began in the 1920s and started being administered by the FBI in the 1930s. Participation in the UCR is voluntary, and some police departments choose not to report their arrests. The report itself has limitations: when a person commits several crimes in one incident, only one of the crimes is recorded in the UCR. However, the UCR provides definitional consistency to crime statistics across jurisdictions: police departments report crimes according to the UCR definition of a crime, not their own.
The Uniform Crime Report is what earned Alaska its shameful status as Rape Capital of the US and its new title as the Most Dangerous State in the US. Critics have pointed out that differences in definitions of crimes in different states can lead to inconsistent reporting in the UCR and population density relative to crime may be reported inaccurately, leading to inaccuracies in ratios. But what if the numbers are just wrong?
Norma Jean Almodovar, former Los Angeles Police Department employee and infamous “cop to call girl,” has been following rape and prostitution in the Uniform Crime report for decades.
“I’ve seen numbers undercounted for rapes and overcounted for prostitution arrests,” she said. “The various tables from the FBI never match up – one table shows one set of numbers while another table shows a different set. I don’t think they can count – and they sure don’t seem to be able to reconcile the reported arrests or reported crimes!”
Dr. Barnes shared a similar experience trying to count murders in Fairbanks, Alaska back in the early 90s – the numbers reported by the police, the mayor, the Crime in Alaska report, the borough, and the Uniform Crime report were all different.
The Uniform Crime Report is used to inform policy and to allocate law enforcement resources – for example, an increase of 1700% in prostitution arrests would lead officials to believe that there should be a corresponding response to this rash of prostitution. In a document entitled “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics: Their Proper Use,” the FBI explains:
UCR crime statistics are used in many ways and serve many purposes. They provide law enforcement with data for use in budget formulation, planning, resource allocation, assessment of police operations, etc., to help address the crime problem at various levels… Legislators draft anti-crime measures using the research findings and recommendations of law enforcement administrators, planners, and public and private entities concerned with the problem of crime. The news media use the crime statistics provided by the UCR Program to inform the public about the state of crime.
Speaking about how the UCR is used, Dr. Barnes said, “policy becomes a matter of ‘who cares.’ If the local city council or the state legislature—with respect to, say, state police, or state troopers—they can look at [the UCR’s figures] and make decisions about funding. For example, and do we need more troopers? Do we need more police?”
If the Uniform Crime Report is wrong, maybe the state’s own Crime In Alaska report is the source to turn to for accurate information. In Crime In Alaska 2013, right after line 16A, Prostitution, comes line 16B, Assisting or Promoting Prostitution. Zero arrests are listed for assisting or promoting prostitution, yet a records request from December of 2013 turned up two people who had been arrested for and charged with promoting prostitution (a criminal statute whose name was changed from “promoting prostitution” to “sex trafficking” in 2012) that year.
Did the 2012 change in the name of the law confuse the reporting on it? How could a typo cause 602 “prostitute imaginaries” to be included in such an important publication? More importantly, can our government count? If we can’t depend on our government to accurately record its own arrests, how can we trust them to create appropriate policy to address crime?
“How much crime is there in Alaska?” Dr. Barnes said, “Well…there are about forty places in Alaska that don’t report to the UCRs.”
Despite this, Dr. Barnes thinks very little of the UCR goes wrong on the FBI side. He says more of the concern is at the front end – what’s reported by the police – rather than the back end.
“Sometimes there are political forces that might impact how police departments themselves classify crimes,” Dr. Barnes said.
“My main concern is that that number would be allowed to misrepresent to the public or to elected officials or policy makers the veracity of how many people are being affected,” said Maxine Doogan, a prostitute and activist. “My concern is that it would misappropriate already scarce resources into the already failed policy of arresting trafficked victims for prostitution.”
Doogan’s worries are not unfounded. In 2010, a sex trafficking victim was arrested in Alaska and charged with 24 counts of conspiracy to commit trafficking. In 2014, closely coinciding with the release of the 2013 Uniform Crime Report, the Alaska Bureau of Investigations started a new unit focused on sex trafficking. The Special Crimes Investigative Unit’s main purpose, according to a 2015 status report, is to “locate and rescue juvenile victims that are being forced to work as prostitutes in the commercial sexual exploitation of children,” but they have yet to charge anyone with trafficking a minor. Instead, they have arrested a sex worker who provided safety services to other sex workers, refused to take reports from sex workers who were crime victims, and followed up on other reports by contacting sex worker victims in a threatening or sexual manner. Human error and even incompetence in Alaska’s police departments may be forgivable, but these activities are not.