On January 1, 2016 the FBI began tracking animal cruelty crimes. Data and statistics for those charged are expected to become available in 2017 but it will take up to three to five years for this data to begin showing helpful patterns. Those charged with an act of cruelty against animals will be charged as a felony crime just as arson, burglary, assault, and homicide crimes are charged and added to the FBI’s expansive criminal database.
Detailed data from participating law enforcement agencies on acts of animal cruelty, including gross neglect, torture, organized abuse, and sexual abuse will be included in the Bureau’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Before this change in the law, crimes involving animals were lumped into an “All Other Offenses” category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s annual Crime in the United States report, a survey of crime data provided by approximately 18,000 city, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies. The addition of animal cruelty offenses to NIBRS, law enforcement agencies and the advocacy groups that pushed for the inclusion in the FBI database hope the results will reveal a more complete picture of the nature of cruelty to animals.
By adding this data to NIBRS—rather than the summary-based statistics, agencies will get a much richer data set from which to mine. NIBRS requires participating agencies to not only report crimes but also all the circumstances of a crime. Additionally, the Bureau plans to phase out summary-based UCR statistics which has collected data roughly the same way since 1930 in favor of NIBRS by 2021.
“With summary data, all I can tell you is a crime occurred,” said Amy Blasher, who is leading the broader transition to NIBRS. “With the incident-based, it’s more granular. It tells the story.”
“Some studies say that cruelty to animals is a precursor to larger crime,” said Nelson Ferry, who works in the Bureau’s unit which manages NIBRS. “That’s one of the items that we’re looking at.”
The move to collect more granular data requires agencies to adjust how they track and disseminate crime statistics. Only about 31 percent of the country is currently represented in NIBRS, a fraction of the overall UCR participants; however, Blasher anticipates the figure to grow as law enforcement agencies opt in, including police departments in Washington, D.C. and Chicago over the next two years. The FBI is aggressively pushing for the transition to NIBRS. In a speech last March in Atlanta, FBI Director James Comey said it was his personal mission to get better data “that we can all use to have informed conversations about the most important issues we face.”
The National Sheriffs’ Association was a leading advocate for adding animal cruelty as a data set in the Bureau’s collection of crime statistics. The association for years has cited studies linking animal abuse and other types of crimes—most famously, murders committed by serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and the “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz. The organization also points out the overlap animal abuse has with domestic violence and child abuse.
“If somebody is harming an animal, there is a good chance they also are hurting a human,” John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, shared in a FBI interview in early 2016. “If we see patterns of animal abuse, the odds are that something else is going on.”
Those who lobbied for better animal abuse data would agree. “With this information, law enforcement and victim services would be able to better target their intervention efforts with respect to both animal cruelty and those crimes for which animal cruelty serves as a marker,” Dr. Mary Lou Randour, of the Animal Welfare Institute, also offered to the FBI’s announcement of this change. Dr. Randour also worked closely with the National Sheriffs’ Association to advance their cause. “Identifying and analyzing animal cruelty crimes would provide an important tool for law enforcement.” Dr. Randour’s interview is available here.
The National Sheriffs’ Association’s John Thompson urges people to shed the mindset that animal cruelty is a crime only against animals. “It’s a crime against society,” he said, urging all law enforcement agencies to participate in NIBRS. “By paying attention to [these crimes], we are benefiting all of society.” Not to mention, designing a way to protect the lives of animals and protect those living with domestic violence.
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