Did US Police Tally 10 Million Arrests in 2020?

Data wasn't yet available to definitively answer the question — but the number was certainly possible.

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We investigated whether U.S. police officers documented 10 million arrests in 2020.
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Claim

U.S. police officers documented 10 million arrests in 2020.

Rating

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Context

This number is plausible, based on recorded totals for previous years, but as of this writing we do not yet have access to complete data for 2020.

Origin

In spring 2021, several Snopes readers asked us to investigate the legitimacy of online reports alleging U.S. police officers documented 10 million arrests the previous year. 

“Last year there were 10 million arrests by police,” an April 29 tweet read. “If anyone is uncomfortable with the accuracy of these numbers you can research at: Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program — FBI.”

In addition to the UCR — which indeed operates a database of U.S. crime statistics submitted by some 18,000 law enforcement agencies on a voluntary basis — authors of the claim cited The Washington as a source.

But based on our research, no project by that news outlet compiled, estimated, nor confirmed the number of arrests by police in 2020, and it was unclear why social media posts and emails to Snopes alleged otherwise.

Furthermore, as of this writing, no government database had released the total number of arrests by officers in 2020.

10 Million Arrests in 2020 Was Certainly Plausible

Let us elaborate on that finding. Via the UCR system, the FBI releases data every three months, according to its FAQ page. Some of those purges are preliminary numbers that undergo additional review before a database of final statistics (called a “Crime Data Explorer”) includes them.

And, as of this writing, some 12,200 law enforcement agencies (of the roughly 18,000) had indeed submitted preliminary data for the first six months of 2020, according to a press release summarizing those statistics for January to June 2020.

However, the summary did not include the six-month arrest total, and the Crime Data Explorer (finalized data) did not incorporate the preliminary statistics for the first half of 2020.

So, we requested total arrest numbers by filing a formal public records request with the FBI’s Information Management Division. On May 19, an administrator responded to us, saying:

Please be advised that 2020 Arrest Information estimations are not currently complete. Additionally, 2020 Arrest Information will be published later this year. Therefore, your request is being closed.

Less than a week later, a representative of the FBI’s communication team responded to our request with a similar message, telling us via email the agency was planning to release the data in late September.

That said, 2019 was the most recent year with a final, comprehensive dataset at the time of Snopes’ readers requests. 

Per the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, participating law enforcement agencies tallied roughly 8,011,000 arrests for all types of offenses that year (besides minor traffic violations), as shown via the screenshot below.

Additionally, the system tracked the below-displayed annual totals:

  • 2018 – 8,626,746 arrests
  • 2017 – 9,456,591 arrests
  • 2016 – 8,999,464 arrests
  • 2015 – 8,845,181 arrests
  • 2014 – 9,046,070 arrests
  • 2013 – 9,622,432 arrests
  • 2012 – 9,984,658 arrests
  • 2011 – 10,021,663 arrests
  • 2010 – 10,610,659 arrests
  • 2009 – 11,076,212 arrests

Based on that data — which, again, are based on voluntary self-assessments by police — officers arrested an average of approximately 10.4 million each year over the past decade. That trend suggested the claim (officers documented 10 million arrests in 2020) plausible, despite the fact no available evidence definitively substantiated it.

Other Databases Indicated Similar Trend

Other compilations of crime statistics also showed officers made about 10 million arrests each year.

For example, another government-run database — this one operated by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention — estimated a slightly higher total number of arrests for 2019 (approximately 10,085,000), a slight increase from the FBI’s total potentially due to the inclusion of juvenile crimes, among other factors.

Additionally, a tool by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, documented a similar trend between 1980 and 2016.

“That data shows that of more than 10.5 million arrests made every year, the bulk are for noncriminal behavior, drug violations, and low-level offenses,” The Intercept said of the Vera’s compilation of statistics. “Since 1980, arrests for drug violations have increased by 170 percent, and racial disparities in enforcement have grown even more stark.”

In sum, since no credible agency compiled nor finalized a total number of arrests for 2020 at the time of this publication, we are issuing no rating for this claim and we will update that status when the requested data becomes available to us.

Recent Updates
  1. This report was updated with the FBI's response to Snopes' public records request for 2020 arrest data.
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