Every Three Seconds Unlocking Police Data on Arrests


More than 10 million arrests are made each year in the United States. Although arrest is an important tool in some situations, its overuse can have many detrimental effects. These include, but are not limited to, mass incarceration, diminished public health and economic prosperity, racial inequities, and unwieldy levels of bureaucratic work for officers. The widespread use of arrests also damages already fractured trust between police and many of the communities they serve. Given these impacts, arrests should be monitored carefully and applied sparingly. Alternatives to arrest need to be explored and implemented. However, this space has seen little innovation to date, largely because the data needed to drive and inform change is inaccessible.

To help unlock this important knowledge, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed Arrest Trends. This tool provides answers to fundamental questions about American policing by organizing publicly available datasets into one easy-to-use data platform where users can access, customize, and analyze decades of policing data that previously had been disparately located and difficult to interpret. Users can explore trends in arrests, arrest demographics, clearance rates, victimizations, and data reported at both the local and national levels to understand how these vary by time, location, and offense type. Arrest Trends aims to empower diverse stakeholders such as community advocates, police practitioners, and policymakers to explore and better understand police enforcement.

The most important aspects of Arrest Trends are the actionable findings that can be quickly generated and visualized. These findings will create an understanding of, and drive needed improvements to, police enforcement in America. Initial analyses of Arrest Trends’ data paint a striking picture, showing that despite recent reductions, the use of arrest is still staggeringly high. The tool reveals that, although arrest volumes have dropped by more than 25 percent since 2006, an arrest is made every three seconds. Fewer than 5 percent of these are for serious violent crimes. Instead, the bulk of police work is in response to incidents that are not criminal in nature and the majority of arrests involve non-serious offenses like “drug abuse violations”—arrests for which increased more than 170 percent between 1980 and 2016—disorderly conduct, and a nondescript low-level offense category known as “all other non-traffic offenses.” Collectively, these offenses make up more than 80 percent of all arrests. Further, these heavily arrested non-serious offenses disproportionately impact people of color. The data shows that arrests are applied with geographic disparity as well, concentrating most prominently in metropolitan—and particularly suburban—areas.

The enforcement of overwhelmingly low-level offenses may challenge police-community relationships—which are often already frayed—impairing police effectiveness and public safety as a whole. When people do not trust the police, they may be less likely to report crimes or assist in investigations. Indeed, Arrest Trends shows us that fewer than 40 percent of victims report their experiences to the police, and fewer than 25 percent of offenses known to the police are then cleared (meaning that they are solved by arrest).

Collectively, the data presented in Arrest Trends, and the findings in this report, challenge the notion that America’s reliance on enforcement is a necessary component to achieving oft-stated public safety goals—or indeed, a means of achieving justice or equity. The launch of Arrest Trends marks Vera’s most recent effort to reduce the criminal justice system’s footprint—by unlocking key policing data and, in doing so, elevating the narrative of overreliance on arrests and the need for viable alternatives. In this report, readers will find information about the need for greater access to policing data, an overview of the Arrest Trends tool as well as several initial findings gleaned from it, and future directions for this work.