The state director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers wants to double the penalties for assaulting a police officer, and he’s leaning heavily on some FBI statistics to make his case.
"As you know, police work is a hazardous job to start off with, but over the years more and more police officers have been assaulted and killed in the line of duty," Tony Capezza told the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 26.
"In New England, Rhode Island has the second highest number of police officers being assaulted."
Citing 2014 numbers from the FBI, Capezza said there were 682 assaults on officers in Connecticut and 324 assaults in Rhode Island.
The numbers he gave translate to about 31 assaults per 100,000 Rhode Islanders and about 19 assaults per 100,000 Connecticut residents. Capezza noted the significantly higher per capita rate of assaults in Rhode Island and cited population figures for both states, about 3.5 million for Connecticut and 1 million for Rhode Island.
Rep. Edith H. Ajello asked about Massachusetts and Capezza told her "Massachusetts had … 141 assaults based on a 4,150,000 population."
"Seems to me the per capita assault on police officers in Rhode Island is way out of line with Connecticut and Massachusetts," said Ajello. "Much higher, which is certainly concerning."
We dug into the FBI’s annual report on the subject and found that just 235 of 323 Massachusetts departments filed their assault data. That works out to a compliance rate of 72 percent. The rate was 98 percent in Connecticut and Rhode Island, 97 percent in Maine, 95 percent in New Hampshire and 100 percent in Vermont.
A Massachusetts state official who coordinates data for the FBI provided us with a list of communities that contributed statistics, including Boston and Fall River, but not Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Quincy, Brockton, New Bedford, Springfield and Worcester.
At PolitiFact, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. We told Capezza about the absence of data from 88 police agencies; he stood by his earlier testimony.
"By this document, it’s clear Rhode Island has the second-highest amount of assaults," said the Rhode Island state director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
The table in the FBI report referenced by Capezza groups the six New England states and lists the number of assaults reported by participating agencies in each of them. The number of assaults in Rhode Island is the second-highest number in the table.
But the same table also provides information about "the number of reporting agencies" and the "population covered" -- indications that the individual assault statistics may not reflect all assault data compiled by all police agencies in each state. The population covered by the statistic that Capezza gave to Ajello was the 4.1 million listed in the table, but the FBI’s total population estimate for Massachusetts, found elsewhere in its Uniform Crime Reports, was about 6.5 million.
Also, the report itself does not rank the New England states. Capezza did that on his own.
The FBI deliberately avoids rankings like the one that Capezza presents.
And the agency warns data users to avoid comparing data from states and other types of jurisdictions "solely on the basis of their population coverage…" and without considering a full range of other factors such as degree of urbanization, strength of law enforcement and poverty levels.
"Until data users examine all the variables that affect crime in a town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction, they can make no meaningful comparisons," says the FBI’s warning.
Capezza said that: "In New England, RI has the second highest number of police officers being assaulted."
He cited FBI Uniform Crime Reports as his source and the FBI data from Rhode Island and four other New England states supports his claim. The data from Massachusetts also supports the claim.
The problem is that, pending an update, the Massachusetts data is only 72 percent complete. In other words, 28 percent of the data from New England’s most populous state is missing. That’s a substantial gap.
Also, Capezza misused the FBI data when he ranked the New England states without addressing all of the variables that can affect such a crime statistic. Such rankings are explicitly discouraged by the agency’s cautionary guidelines.
For those two reasons, the ruling is Mostly False.