The next set of FBI crime data is going to be a mess

Crime — particularly the spike in homicides that the country has seen over the past two years — is believed to be weighing heavily on voters with November’s midterm elections not too far away. Politically, when the FBI releases 2021 national crime estimates this fall, they have the potential to be a big deal. If the killings are still high compared to a few years ago, as most experts expect, Republicans will surely blame the Democrats as the party in power.

But whatever figures the FBI releases are unlikely to provide the clarity on crime trends that the public deserves. And that’s because of a recent and significant change in how the FBI collects crime data. As a result, it can be virtually impossible to say with any certainty whether crime is increasing or decreasing.

On paper, the new National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) is vastly superior to the Uniform Crime Report Summary Reporting System it replaces. NIBRS allows authorities to collect data on multiple crimes within the same incident (e.g. a robbery leading to a homicide), provides better insight into a wider range of crimes in a jurisdiction compared to the old system, and enables new ones Breakdowns of crime victimization by age, sex and race. In the long term, NIBRS will provide “much more detail and context about crimes” than the legacy system, including tracking capabilities, according to the FBI non-fatal victims of shootings for the first time.

But there are big problems. For starters, more than 7,000 of the country’s nearly 19,000 law enforcement agencies are yet to report data to NIBRS. Although they’ve had years to prepare for this transition — the FBI announced the transition in 2015 and spent more than $120 million helping agencies make the transition — only 62 percent, which is just 65 percent of the US, are coming forward -Cover population, at NIBRS 2021, according to FBI.

NIBRS is voluntary at the federal level, so the FBI cannot compel reporting. All agencies either had to switch from the old system to NIBRS or not report crime data to the FBI. Marcus Berzofsky, a senior research statistician at RTI International who works on the NIBRS transition estimation problem, predicts that 32 of the 72 largest agencies will not be reporting a full year’s NIBRS data for 2021. Eight agencies covering 1 million or more individuals will not report NIBRS data, including both the NYPD and LAPD.

Under the old system, the FBI based its estimates on reports from agencies representing more than 95 percent of the country’s population each year. These extremely high coverage rates made “the level of uncertainty negligible,” Berzofsky said in a webinar in January 2022.

Some switching costs are to be expected. Switching to NIBRS is a complex technical process that can be expensive for agencies and take up to two years. Agencies require a significant amount of technical assistance, financial backing, and political will to move away from the legacy system they may have used for over 90 years.

The result is that national crime estimates over the next few years will be fraught with more uncertainty than ever before. This is especially true for the 2021 national crime data. The FBI says it will “not generate a percentage change/difference and compare estimates to past years” for this data. NIBRS estimates for 2021 are accompanied by confidence intervals that attempt to express the level of uncertainty in the reporting, although it is not yet clear how large the confidence intervals will be.

Worse, some states will have no crime estimates at all for 2021 and maybe even beyond. The FBI said in an email that state estimates “are not released if population coverage is less than 80 percent” — in other words, if law enforcement agencies reporting their data to NIBRS use less than 80 percent of a state’s data make up population, the FBI will not estimate that state’s total crime numbers. The FBI set this threshold to prevent a state from submitting data that is so limited as to skew the general perception of crime in that state. But the unintended consequence is that too many states end up missing from the statewide data.

This will result in significantly less insight into national crime trends at a crucial time. The number of homicides rose at an historic rate in 2020, and the available evidence from major cities points to a further – albeit smaller – increase in 2021. The NIBRS transition will uncertainty for policymakers, academics, law enforcement officials and community members about local, statewide and national trends and about the effectiveness of efforts to reduce violence. NIBRS may improve researchers’ ability to study local and national crime trends, but those skills likely won’t make much of a difference when it comes to understanding and reversing the current homicide rate.

People are used to certainty when it comes to reporting crime data and most will not understand in November how little certainty they have about our latest crime figures. Unfortunately, not much can be done to “fix” NIBRS beyond completing the transition so that the new reporting rates match the coverage of the old system. But that can take years, and people will vote long before that. The next set of FBI crime data is going to be a mess

Jessica MacLeish

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