Academics and other experts who track the rising and falling of crime in America were expecting on Monday to see a fresh batch of data from the FBI: quarterly aggregated crime stats (courtesy of police departments) that would offer a picture of trends across the country in 2021.
Instead, the agency announced this week that it would not be releasing the statistics, due to a lack of data provided by local police departments.
The agency noted that it has received data from 9,881 law enforcement agencies, out of a total of 18,818 agencies, for 2021. In order to release the data, the agency required a 60% participation rate. (The agency did make available the non-aggregated data for individual participating cities with populations over 100,000.)
“It’s a pretty arbitrary threshold because 60% is completely meaningless. It’s not like 60% means the data is useful and 59% means the data is not useful,” Jacob Kaplan, a criminologist at Princeton University, tells TIME.
But behind the lack of participation is a little-noted switch in the FBI’s data collecting process—and it’s one that could have implications far beyond a single percentage point.
Every year, the FBI releases its annual year-end crime report, which is based on data provided voluntarily by police departments across the country. This report typically comes out near the end of the following year. (The 2020 report, for example, came out in September of 2021.) Quarterly reports were actually a relatively new innovation, having been introduced in 2020.
To track the numbers that police departments report, the FBI for decades used a system called the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) to collect data. But in 2021, the Bureau switched to a different system, called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which provides more details on crimes that are reported. Though the change is meant to improve tracking, this week’s announcement from the FBI highlights what experts say are serious concerns about its impact on crime statistics for years to come.
The problem is that a large portion of police departments do not have the NIBRS system, which is expensive and can be difficult to implement into a department. According to the Bureau of Statistics, it could cost up to $377,000 for a department to switch over to NIBRS and over $53,000 for annual maintenance. According to the FBI, 63% of all police agencies in the country are using the NIBRS system; however, many of the big cities, like New York and Los Angeles, don’t use NIBRS, which means their crime trends will be completely left out of the FBI’s data analysis for 2021, including the annual reports.
“The absence of the two largest cities in the country begs the question as to what kind of confidence the public should have in the numbers produced by the FBI,” Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says. “This is a time period in which we really want to know what’s happening with respect to the most serious crimes. The uncertainties around the data are going to make definitive conclusions very difficult to draw.”
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism of their collecting process and releasing the information.
Crime, particularly homicide, has been a noteworthy issue since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Homicide numbers increased by 29% in 2020, per the FBI’s own report last year, which used UCR numbers. The increase slowed a bit in 2021 but many cities still experienced a record number of killings. But the lack of concrete data can make it difficult to accurately assess what is happening. In addition to the problems presented by cities that have not yet adopted NIBRS, some experts also believe that the FBI could better handle the data it does have. The new system allows for details of incident-by-incident reporting, but the Bureau aggregates it before making it public. Some believe it would make more sense for the FBI to just put out the raw data that they receive. (That is, instead of releasing the total number of homicides from a city, they would release the details of each particular incident.)
“I think if they release the full data it’d be really useful. COVID has shown us that crime trends change very quickly,” Kaplan says. “If they just release the detailed data every quarter that’d be better than having to wait for aggregated data that just shows us the number of crimes in big population groups.”
Crime is expected to be a focal point for the midterm elections and whatever the FBI’s data looks like, it will likely be a reference point for decision-makers and voters.
“[Crime data] influences policies, it influences politics. Most importantly it influences people’s perceptions of their community and other communities. Millions of dollars are doled out every year to support a whole variety of criminal justice programs,” Rosenfeld says. “We should have a firmer understanding of the data.”
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