At the start of 2016, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation began began to compile a national database of animal abuse. The data comes from law enforcement agencies who separate incidents into different categories in their monthly reports to the bureau. Previously, animal incidents were lumped together with “other crimes.” But they now have their own “Group A felony” category, joining homicide, arson, assault, and 19 other very serious crimes.

The new system also requires much more detailed reporting, placing the crime far higher on law enforcement radar screens. For example, the system requires incidents to be subdivided into simple/gross negligence, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse (dog and cock fighting) or animal sexual abuse. And the registry is public, enabling anyone aware of an incident to verify that a report has been filed.

According to John Thompson of the National Sherriff’s Association, one of the two groups that requested the change, “[Before,] if there were an animal crime, we would just send it over to animal control or ignore it.”

The change, which took place January 1st, applies to police and other enforcement agencies that participate in the bureau’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, and this data will be useful in multiple ways.  It will be easier, for example, to identify young offenders, who might benefit from early attention. Many career criminals begin with animal crimes – serial killers, in particular, often start out by torturing and killing animals. And according to Amey Owen of the Animal Welfare Institute, which pushed for the new policy, “with this information, law enforcement will be able to better track trends, plan policies, an allocate resources for intervention efforts with respect to both animal cruelty and those crimes for which animal cruelty serves as a market.”

The data will also help shelters across the country identify abusers who apply to adopt their animals. And when someone reports animal abuse to local authorities, the incident will make its way into the NIBRS database.

Only one-third of all enforcement agencies, however, participate in the NIBRS program, which began in 1988. Most others do report data, but they continue to use the older system, called the SRS, or Summary Reporting System.  The SRS has no equivalent category, includes far fewer details, and is much less automated. The bureau has been encouraging agencies to shift, but changeover has been slow. Legislation dictates reporting policy in some states, opening an opportunity for animal activists at the local level.

Beyond the practical implications, the new FBI practice also has symbolic meaning. The bureau is synonymous with crime prevention and punishment in the US, and appears to have made a statement: animal abuse is among those crimes that cannot be overlooked.