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The Ten Most Wanted

- August 21, 2008

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Public Enemy Number One in the 1930s: John Dillinger

Whatever his personal foibles — and they seem to have been numerous and strange — J. Edgar Hoover was a master in the art of public relations, and over the course of several decades he used that skill to advance the FBI’s interests. One of Hoover’s PR-related brainstorms was the cration of the “Ten Most Wanted” list, an innovation that has been copied by countless state and local law enforcement agencies.

bq. The persistence and prevalence of wanted posters and lists suggests that they provide substantial benefits to their sponsoring police agencies. Two likely benefits are: (1) the publicity that they generate may hasten the apprehension of fugitives; and (2) they serve as a vehicle through which the police agency may communicate its law enforcement priorities. The degree to which these objectives coincide depends on the correlation between enforcement priorities and fugitives’ sensitivity to publicity. Fugitives vary in the degree to which the dissemination of information about them influences their probabilities of apprehension. When an enforcement agency assigns a high priority to the pursuit of fugitives who are sensitive to publicity, wanted posters andlists furnish the benefits of both faster apprehensions and priority announcement. However, when an enforcement priority includes offenders whose apprehension probabilities are insensitive to publicity, the choice of which kind of offender to feature on a wanted list presents a tradeoff between hastening apprehensions and announcing priorities.

That’s Thomas J. Miles talking, in “An Empirical Analysis of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted,” Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 5 (July 2008), 275-308 (abstract here).

So how does the FBI use the Ten Most Wanted list? To find out, Miles compiled data on all 481 fugitives who had appeared on the list since its inception (no thanks to the FBI and other federal agencies, which refused to cooperate in the study). Here’s what he found:

bq. The results are consistent with the existence of a tradeoff between the two primary purposes of wanted lists. …First, the charcteristics of fugitives featured on the list changed over time. Many of the fugitives added tot he list in recent decades were violators of newly enacted federal statutes. The fraction of top ten fugitives sought for traditional categories of federal crimes, such as bank robbers, declined over time, while the fraction wanted for violation of new federal criminal laws, such as sex offenses or participation in large criminal organizations, rose. Importantly, fugitives posted to the Most Wanted List in more recent years remained at large for longer periods on average than members of the top ten did several decades ago. The average stay on the list has roughly doubled since the first decade of the list’s existence. Moreover, the fraction of the top ten fugitives apprehended directly through a ‘tip’ or information received from the publc in response to the list’s publicity has declined in recent years. …The estimates suggest that the FBI in recent years has placed on the list fugitives who are more difficult to catch and are less likely to be caught through tips from the public.

In short, over time the FBI has used its Ten Most Wanted list less for the purpose of catching criminals and more for the purpose of advertising its responsiveness to cultural and political changes in what are understood to be serious crimes that require high-priority attention.