FBI at Work
Regional Variation in Enforcement
Although embezzlers and drug traffickers are very different kinds of criminals, they share one important characteristic: no one has figured out a way to measure how their illegal activities impact on different parts of the nation. Put simply, there is no thermometer that can tell the government which regions are hot and which regions are cold when it comes to crooked bankers or fraudulent medical providers or the distributors of unlawful substances like cocaine or heroin.

While there are numerous suppositions and theories on the subject — Wall Street must have a lot of stock fraud and an area with a large number of old folks certainly would be attractive to a certain kind of swindler — the absence of good yardsticks presents a real dilemma when it comes to deciding how well or poorly an agency like the FBI is performing its duties.

What can be measured and compared, however, are the actions taken by the FBI and other such organizations as they go about trying to meet their assigned responsibilities. These comparisons can focus on substantive matters such as the kinds of problems the agency has chosen to work on and procedural subjects such as the proportion of its investigations that result in conviction. By comparing various performance indicators of a single agency in different parts of the country,useful questions can be asked about the fairness and effectiveness of its operations. Here are a few examples:

  • The White House Office of Drug Control Policy for some years has viewed Miami (Florida South), New York (New York South) and Los Angeles (California Central) as the major ports of entry for illegal drugs into the United States and as areas where individual drug use is relatively high. Given this national finding, why is the FBI drug enforcement effort in these three areas not among the most aggressive in the United States. (While Miami ranks 31st among the 90 districts, New York South and East are 56th and 57th, and California Central (Los Angeles) is 60th.)

    Asked another way, why were the federal districts in Pennsylvania Middle (Scranton), Nebraska (Omaha), Tennessee East (Knoxville) and New York West (Buffalo) among the most active in the nation when it came to the proportion of FBI referrals for prosecution concerning drugs? While there may be valid explanations for these and other apparent anomalies, it is totally fitting that in a democratic government the FBI should be prepared to deal with them. (See table.)

  • The exploration of procedural questions also can be revealing. In 2005, for example, five very different federal judicial districts — Washington D.C., South Dakota (Sioux Falls), Montana (Billings), Hawaii (Honolulu) and Tennessee West (Memphis) — shared the distinction of racking up over the largest number of FBI convictions in relation to population, over 10,000 convictions per 100 million population. (See table.)

  • On the other hand, the differences among the five districts with the fewest per capita convictions are not as striking. They included Alabama Middle (Montgomery), Iowa South (Des Moines), Indiana South (Indianapolis), Iowa North (Cedar Rapids) and Maine (Portland). (See table.)

  • These regional variations can be seen to change over time. For example, in 2006, Maine (Portland) ranked 87th out of 90 districts in terms of referrals, with 3,847 per 100 million population. This contrasts with its 2001 ranking of 28th, with 18,140 referrals per 100 million population. See ranks and counts.

In addition to charting who is on top and who is on bottom, the examination of conviction rates gives the public a way measuring how much more effort the FBI is exerting in different sections of the country. Why, for example, is the FBI conviction rate in South Dakota more than twenty times that in northern Iowa? Are the people in northern Iowa inherently more criminal? Are the police in South Dakota doing such a superior job that the FBI can take it easy? Are the people in these districts receiving equal protection under the law?

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