Emerging Findings

Early use of Arrest Trends has already uncovered important trends regarding:

  • drivers of arrests;
  • disparities in arrests;
  • effectiveness of arrests; and
  • gaps in arrest data.

These emerging trends are described below and can be explored further online through Arrest Trends.

Drivers of arrests

Arrest Trends can be used to examine the number of, and reasons for, arrests made. The results are stark. Initial analysis shows that, across the United States, an arrest occurs every three seconds. Although this figure may sound strikingly high, today’s estimated total arrest volume—approximately 10.5 million arrests annually—has dropped to historic lows not otherwise seen since the early 1980s.An estimated 10,458,260 arrests occurred in 1980 and 10,662,252 occurred in 2016.

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Figure 1. 1980–2016 estimated arrest volume

This recent decline in arrests occurred primarily over the past 10 years, with arrest volumes dropping by more than 25 percent between 2006 and 2016.An estimated 14,382,852 arrests occurred in 2006 and 10,662,252 occurred in 2016. Arrest rates also decreased by 31 percent over this same time period, shifting from an estimated rate of 4,722 per 100,000 in 2006, to 3,239 per 100,000 in 2016. The timing of this decline in arrest trends parallels widespread changes in policing policies, such as the decriminalization of certain offenses (such as “runaways” and “vagrancy”), changing practices around pedestrian and vehicle stops, and the growing recognition that America incarcerates too many people.The FBI list of offense definitions describes “runaways” as “juveniles taken into protective custody under the provisions of local statutes” and vagrancy as “the violation of a court order, regulation, ordinance, or law requiring the withdrawal of persons from the streets or other specified areas; prohibiting persons from remaining in an area or place in an idle or aimless manner; or prohibiting persons from going from place to place without visible means of support.” FBI, “2011 Crime in the United States; Offense Definitions”; For information on changes in vagrancy enforcement practices, see: American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, Decriminalizing Homelessness: Why Right to Rest Legislation is the High Road for Oregon (Portland, OR: ACLU of Oregon, 2017); and for changes in pedestrian stop practices see Brentin Mock, “How Police are Using Stop-and-Frisk Four Years after a Seminal Court Ruling,” CityLab, August 18, 2017. For a discussion of historical traffic stop policies and recent changes, see Jeff Cohen, “To Reduce Bias, Some Police Departments Are Rethinking Traffic Stops,” NPR, July 25, 2016. For the history of American incarceration—and overincarceration—policy as well as current trends, see Ruth Delaney, Ram Subramanian, Alison Shames, and Nicholas Turner, Reimagining Prison, (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2018).

Despite this decline, arrests are clearly still a massive enterprise, affecting many. To better understand their purpose, we can begin by investigating the types of offenses that most prominently drive arrest volumes. The data shows that non-serious, low-level offenses such as “drug abuse violations” and “disorderly conduct” make up over 80 percent of arrests, while serious (Part I) violent offenses account for fewer than five percent of arrests.The FBI categorizes serious offenses as Part I and less-serious offenses as Part II. Part I violent offenses include criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. Part I property offenses, which make up the other 15 percent of arrests, include arson, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. The FBI defines “drug abuse violations” as “the violation of laws prohibiting the production, distribution, and/or use of certain controlled substances[; t]he unlawful cultivation, manufacture, distribution, sale, purchase, use, possession, transportation, or importation of any controlled drug or narcotic substance[; or] arrests for violations of state and local laws, specifically those relating to the unlawful possession, sale, use, growing, manufacturing, and making of narcotic drugs” and “disorderly conduct” as “any behavior that tends to disturb the public peace or decorum, scandalize the community, or shock the public sense of morality.” FBI, “Offense Definitions.”

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Figure 2. Proportion of estimated arrests made for serious violent offenses in 2016

Especially notable are drug arrests, which increased by 171 percent between 1980 and 2016, and—despite recent, smaller declines—now account for more than 1.5 million arrests annually—the vast majority of which are made for drug possession generally, and marijuana possession most often.An estimated 580,900 drug arrests occurred in 1980, and 1,572,572 occurred in 2016. Estimated drug arrest rates also showed an increase of 88 percent over the same time period, jumping from 254 per 100,000 in 1980 to 478 per 100,000 in 2016. The Arrest Trends tool features data on drug arrests generally, but this category is not broken out by specific drug offense type due to inconsistencies in that data’s availability; however, the FBI provides publicly available, national level aggregate data on drug arrest breakouts. Although 2016 FBI drug arrest breakdown tables do not exist, 2017 data indicates that 85 percent of drug arrests were made for possession (not sales), with the leading possession drug type being marijuana, making up 37 percent of all drug arrests. Federal Bureau of Investigation, “2017 Crime in the United States; Arrests for Drug Abuse Violations,” https://perma.cc/R5YP-YMVD.

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Figure 3. 1980–2016 estimated drug arrest volume

This stark increase in drug arrests suggests that despite evidence that public health-based solutions are more effective, policing practices in response to drugs remain largely punitive in nature.Tracy Pugh, Julie Netherland, Ruth Finkelstein, Kassandra Frederique, Simone-Marie Meeks, and gabriel sayegh, Blueprint for a Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy (New York: Drug Policy Alliance, 2013). In light of the rising opioid epidemic—and the abundance of research suggesting that justice system involvement exacerbates rather than solves substance use disorders—it is imperative that the nation begins to question the reliance on arrests as a response to this public health problem, among others.Ibid.; Arthur J. Lurigio, "Drug Treatment Availability and Effectiveness: Studies of the General and Criminal Justice Populations," Criminal Justice and Behavior 27, no. 4 (2000), 495-528.

Unfortunately, Vera’s analysis reveals that by far the most common arrest category includes a group of low-level offenses labeled by the FBI as “other non-traffic offenses,” which accounts for more than 30 percent of all arrests.

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Figure 4. Proportion of estimated arrests made for “other non-traffic offenses” in 2016

“Other non-traffic offenses” are classified by the FBI as non-serious, low-level offenses, but little else is known about these arrests, making it impossible to understand their utility and effect in maintaining public safety.“Other non-traffic offenses” are defined by the FBI as “all violations of state or local laws not specifically identified as Part I or Part II offenses, except traffic violations.” FBI, “Offense Definitions.” So, although we know that arrests overall are widespread and frequent, we don’t know the specific nature of the largest category of arrests. Going forward, nationally we must interrogate and further understand frequently occurring arrest practices in much greater detail.

What is clear, however, is that approximately 10.5 million arrests per year is a staggeringly high number, given the detrimental effects arrests have on individuals, communities, police officers, and police agencies. Because the vast majority of arrests are made in response to low-level, non-violent offenses, it is imperative to examine the purpose and necessity of arrests—as well as viable alternatives—in order to scale back these and other forms of punitive enforcement.

Disparities in arrests

Arrest Trends can also be used to identify agencies and locales that have been particularly successful in reducing their reliance on arrests—or, conversely, those in particular need of alternative strategies to reduce their reliance on arrests. Vera hopes that future phases of this work will highlight lessons from agencies that have reduced their reliance on arrests and build partnerships with agencies that are eager to implement alternatives.

One important insight from Arrest Trends’ data is that metropolitan areas account for the vast majority of arrests. More specifically, metropolitan areas account for 78 percent of all arrests, while nonmetropolitan areas account for only 21 percent, and another 1 percent occur in areas without a specified municipality type.Metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) are defined by the FBI as “locales that include a principal city or urbanized area with a population of 50,000+” whereas nonmetropolitan areas are defined as “locales that consist mostly of unincorporated areas and do not include a principal city or urbanized area with a population of 50,000+.” FBI, “2013 Crime in the United States; Area Definitions,” https://perma.cc/TRV5-CXRE. Arrest rates mimic these same patterns: metropolitan areas have higher average arrest rates—4,229 arrests per 100,000 residents—than nonmetropolitan areas—3,552 arrests per 100,000 residents.Agencies with undefined area types have an average of 2,189 arrests per 100,000 residents.

Further analysis shows that suburban cities have the highest average arrest rates (4,604 per 100,000), followed by cities outside of metropolitan areas (4,090 per 100,000), principal metropolitan cities (3,332 per 100,000), metropolitan counties (3,027 per 100,000), and nonmetropolitan counties (2,322 per 100,000).The FBI defines suburban cities as “cities with <50,000 inhabitants and unincorporated areas of a metropolitan statistical area (MSA),” principal cities as “cities with 50,000+ inhabitants,” cities outside of metropolitan areas as “cities that exist outside of MSAs; most are unincorporated areas,” metropolitan counties as “counties that contain a principal city or urbanized area with a population of 50,000+,” and nonmetropolitan counties as “counties that consist mostly of unincorporated areas and do not include an MSA (i.e., a city of 50,000+ inhabitants).” FBI, “Area Definitions.” To date, there has been limited criminological research on suburban arrest trends, making this finding particularly worthy of further exploration. This is especially true given that a number of high-profile police enforcement-related events in recent years that resulted in deaths—of black people in particular—have occurred in suburbs such as Ferguson, Missouri; Falcon Heights, Minnesota; and Balch Springs, Texas.Larry Buchanan, Ford Fessenden, K.K. Rebecca Lai, et al., “What Happened in Ferguson?New York Times, August 10, 2015; Camila Domonoske and Bill Chappell, “Minnesota Gov. Calls Traffic Stop Shooting 'Absolutely Appalling At All Levels,” NPR, July 7, 2016; and David A. Graham, “The Shooting of Jordan Edwards,” Atlantic, May 2, 2017.

Publicly available data—made more accessible through Arrest Trends—further suggests that arrests are disproportionately applied across racial, age, and gender groups, and that these trends are particularly prominent for non-serious offenses. The estimated volume of arrests of black people across the country rose by 23 percent between 1980 and 2014, and black people now make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but an estimated 28 percent of all arrests.An estimated 2,529,059 black people were arrested in 1980 and 3,115,383 were arrested in 2014—the most recent year for which estimated arrest demographics data is available. More recent reported arrest demographics data is available for exploration within the tool.

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Figure 5. Racial breakdown of estimated arrests in 2014

Unpacking this further, Arrest Trends shows that in 2014, black people were an estimated 2.39 times more likely to be arrested for “drug abuse violations” than white people—even though research suggests that black people and white people use drugs at similar rates. Vera researchers calculated disparities using 2014 (the most recent year available) UCR estimated arrest volumes and United States Census Bureau population data. For statistics on prevalence of drug use among black and white people see Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables (Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2018), Table 1.29A. This trend may have been spurred by a combination of concentrated policing efforts in disadvantaged communities, racially targeted pedestrian and vehicle stop practices, and racial trends in using drugs outside in public view rather than indoors and in private spaces.Katherine Beckett, Kris Nyrop, Lori Pfingst, and Melissa Bowen, "Drug Use, Drug Possession Arrests, and The Question of Race: Lessons from Seattle," Social Problems 52, no. 3 (2005), 419-441; Katherine Beckett, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst, "Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests," Criminology 44, no. 1 (2006), 105-137; and Andrew Golub, Bruce D. Johnson, and Eloise Dunlap, "The Race/Ethnicity Disparity in Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City," Criminology & Public Policy 6, no. 1 (2007), 131-164.

Arrests of women similarly increased between 1980 and 2014—here by 83 percent—while arrests of men decreased 7 percent over the same timeframe.An estimated 1,631,339 women were arrested in 1980, and 2,988,138 were arrested in 2014. An estimated 8,826,921 men were arrested in 1980, and 8,219,005 were arrested in 2014. Women’s estimated arrest rates increased from 1,413 per 100,000 in 1980 to 1,845 per 100,000 in 2014, while men’s estimated arrest rates decreased from 8,098 per 100,000 in 1980 to 5,237 per 100,000 in 2014. In 1980, women accounted for an estimated 16 percent of all arrests, but in 2014 they accounted for 27 percent.

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Figure 6. 1980–2016 reported volume of women arrested

Arrests of juveniles age 17 and younger decreased by more than 50 percent from 1980 to 2014.An estimated 2,169,870 people age 17 years old and younger were arrested in 1980, and 1,024,231 were arrested in 2014 (a 53 percent decrease). An estimated 5,852,950 people age 24 years old and younger were arrested in 1980, and 4,032,429 were arrested in 2014 (a 31 percent decrease). Estimated arrest rates followed a similar trend, as rates for juveniles arrested dropped 60 percent between 1980 and 2014, and rates for young people age 24 and younger dropped 39 percent over the same time period. In 1980, juveniles accounted for an estimated 20 percent of all arrests, but by 2014 this proportion dropped to 9 percent.In 1980, young adults (age 24 and younger) accounted for an estimated 56 percent of all arrests; by 2014 this had dropped to 36 percent.

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Figure 6. 1980–2016 reported volume of women arrested

This decrease in arrests of young people paralleled several political and cultural shifts in how young people are viewed and treated in the U.S. criminal justice system. Several juvenile-specific offenses were largely decriminalized (such as running away and curfew violations), local non-punitive programs were implemented in response to low-level offenses, developing neurological research showed that young people are evolving decision makers and very capable of change, and the Supreme Court overturned life without parole sentences for juveniles.For the criminalization—and decriminalization—of juvenile-specific offenses see Andrea L. Dennis, “Decriminalizing Childhood,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 45, no. 1 (2017), 1-44, 26-42. For the Supreme Court decision that a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender violates the Eighth Amendment see Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). For a more general discussion of status offenses—crimes that are only crimes because of the age of the offender—see Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Status Offenders (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2015). For a general discussion of developmentally appropriate response see OJJDP, Alternatives to Detention and Confinement (Washington, DC: OJJDP, 2014); and Laurence Steinberg, “Adolescent Development and Juvenile Justice,” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 5, no. 1 (2009), 459-485. These types of advances may have helped propel the decrease in arrests of young people. An important opportunity now exists to explore the application of alternatives to arrest that have been effective with young people to adults as well.

Effectiveness of arrests

The data presented in Arrest Trends shows that, although the estimated volume of victimizations based on reports to national surveyors has dropped by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years, nearly 18 million serious victimizations still occur annually across the country, and the majority of these (more than 60 percent) are not reported to the police.Serious victimizations are measured by NCVS and include rape/sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, personal theft/larceny, household burglary, motor vehicle theft, and household theft.

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Figure 8. 1997–2016 total victimizations and victimizations reported to the police

Of those offenses known to law enforcement, just 25 percent are cleared by arrests (meaning that they are solved by the police).Offenses known to law enforcement are measured through the UCR, and here include all Part I crimes except for homicide and arson so as to most closely resemble the crime types available for analysis in NCVS. The FBI considers an offense ‘cleared by arrest’ or ‘solved’ for UCR reporting purposes “when at least one person is: (a) arrested; (b) charged with the commission of the offense; and (c) turned over to the court for prosecution (whether following arrest, court summons, or police notice). Although no physical arrest is made, a clearance by arrest can be claimed when the individual is a person under 18 years of age and is cited to appear in juvenile court or before other juvenile authorities.” FBI, “2016 Crime in the United States; Clearances.

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Figure 9. Proportion of offenses cleared by arrests in 2016

This data signals a persistent problem affecting police and communities alike: when crime is not reported to the police—as it often is not—it limits the police’s ability to solve and prevent crime and affects the overall safety of communities.For a discussion of how community perception of police legitimacy affects the likelihood of reporting see Reisig, Tankebe, and Mesko, “Public Cooperation with the Police,” 2012, 155-59; and Tyler and Huo, Trust in the Law, 2002. For a discussion of how community perception of police legitimacy affects cooperation with police investigations, see Mengyan Dai, James Frank, and Ivan Sun, “Procedural Justice During Police-Citizen Encounters: The Effects of Process-Based Policing on Citizen Compliance and Demeanor,” Journal of Criminal Justice 39, no. 2 (2011), 159-168; and Lorraine Mazerolle, Sarah Bennett, Jacqueline Davis, Elise Sargeant, and Matthew Manning , “Procedural Justice and Police Legitimacy: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 9, no. 3 (2013), 245-274. While people have various reasons for not reporting a crime to the police, they may be discouraged from doing so by fractured police-community relationships and feelings of mistrust—issues that can be exacerbated by an over-emphasis on the enforcement of low-level offenses.Tyler, Why People Obey the Law, 1990; and Tom R. Tyler and Yuen J. Huo, Trust in the Law: Encouraging Public Cooperation with the Police and Courts (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2002).

Gaps in arrest data

Not all police agencies report their data to the FBI’s UCR program, though they may opt to publish their data elsewhere.Some agencies make their data publicly available through individual departmental websites or via other means but not through UCR, meaning that their data is transparent, but not included in national records or Arrest Trends. Data goes unreported by agencies for a variety of reasons—including lack of technology or resources, incompatible offense definitions, and concerns around open policing data. Further, some agencies report only partial data. As Arrest Trends shows, of the 22,645 police agencies on record in 2016, 32 percent reported none of their arrest data to the FBI, 9 percent reported some of their data, and 59 percent reported all of their data.

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Figure 10. Proportion of agencies to report full, partial, and no UCR arrest data in 2016

Unlike most existing tools, Arrest Trends allows users to explore all relevant arrest data reported through the UCR regardless of whether that data is complete. In other words, community members can still find their agency’s arrest and clearance rate data in Arrest Trends—along with an indicator of where data gaps exist (instances where agencies did not report data to the FBI)—even if the agency only reported partial data. (If an agency reported no data—rather than partial data—however, users will not be able to view these trends.) To account for missing or partial data, the FBI produces estimates at the county, state, regional, and national level; users can explore this data through Arrest Trends, in addition to the reported data.

Underreporting clearly impacts the accuracy and availability of policing data across the country, inhibiting the public’s ability to paint a complete picture of enforcement.Jo Craven McGinty, “The FBI’s Crime Data: What Happens When States Don’t Fully Report,” Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2018. Arrest Trends allows community members to understand how transparent their agencies are about their practices. Further research is needed to understand why agencies are not reporting data to the FBI, and whether that data is available elsewhere. Still, by making data available to a wide range of audiences, including policymakers, researchers, and members of the general public, Arrest Trends provides a new tool for understanding how policing operates across the country and a mechanism for constituents to better understand local and national policing practices.