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The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is severely underreporting animal cruelty cases.
“Since 1930, the FBI has been under congressional mandate to calculate the types, incidence, and prevalence of serious crime in the US and to disseminate this knowledge to the polity, the media, and the public.” These crimes include homicide, aggravated assault, sexual assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson. In 2016, nearly a century later, the FBI began tracking animal cruelty cases.
A new study in the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, however, finds that there are severe shortcomings in how the FBI collects animal cruelty data, what kind of data it collects, and how it classifies that data. These deficits cause it to drastically underreport how much cruelty is occurring and, more importantly, to miss valuable information that would help create prevention programs.
For example, while the FBI classifies homicide and other interhuman crimes as “crimes against persons,” it does not classify cruelty as “crimes against animals.” Instead, it classifies them as “crimes against society,” akin to property crimes like theft. As such, it does not place them in the main category of crimes but in a catchall category called “All Other Offenses.” This limits the amount of data it gets from state law enforcement officials. While most states reported “crimes against persons” and other primary crime data, 32 states did not provide any reporting in the “All Other Offenses” category. As such, the majority of cruelty cases go unreported to the FBI.
In addition, the FBI limits who can report data, presenting a unique problem for crimes against animals. While police officers uniformly investigate “crimes against persons,” they do not always investigate cruelty cases. Instead, “the most frequent responders to complaints of animal cruelty and neglect are animal control officers (ACOs).” And yet, ACOs are not permitted to report this data to the FBI for inclusion in the database.
Other law enforcement officials with various departments also investigate cruelty, including agents with “Agriculture, Conservation, Drug Enforcement, Fire Marshal, Fisheries/Wildlife, Forestry, Natural Resources, Marine Resources, and Health/Social Services.” They, too, are not empowered to report. “In short, animal cruelty is likely among the least reported of all crimes.”1 How much lower? On the top end of the spectrum, study authors estimate that the actual number of cruelty cases could be as much as 500 times higher than reported.
Another limitation of the animal cruelty data is that it provides little information on the offenders or the victims to allow for the creation of effective intervention strategies, such as protecting the pets of domestic violence victims or addressing poverty-driven neglect. While the FBI “identifies numerous aspects of human victim–offender relationships: their age, gender, and race; whether they were related to or otherwise knew each other; the presence of a weapon; and the time and location of the offense.” Other than classifying them into neglect, abuse, dog/cockfighting, and sexual offenses, it “provides no information on animal victims themselves—nothing on the relationship between human offenders and animal victims; on victim species; or on the duration, degree, or type of harm.”
The FBI admits there is a problem with its data and reporting. It just doesn’t want to do anything about it. An FBI-commissioned study found that “even a cursory glance … suggest[s] … that there are numerous gaps in current coverage and knowledge of crimes” against animals. To remedy this, study authors recommended that the FBI elevate cruelty reporting out of the “All Other Offenses” category and add it to the main group of crimes, so more states will report. They recommended categorizing cruelty into several categories, including crimes against animals, the natural environment of animals, and “protected or prohibited species of fauna and flora.” The FBI rejected the proposals. The Agency also rejected any effort to allow ACOs and other cruelty investigators to report crimes for inclusion in the database. As such, cruelty cases will continue to go vastly unreported, and valuable information that can help prevent the crimes will not be collected.
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