Jun 14, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Sweeping reporting failures may compromise the FBI’s 2021 crime data

Months of 2021 FBI crime data reported in by agency
Data: FBI, The Marshall Project; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios Visuals (Note: The chart includes agency participation data compiled by the FBI through Feb. 7, 2022, which was the deadline for local agencies to submit crime data for its Q4 2021 report. Local agencies had until March 7, 2022, to submit data for the FBI's 2021 national crime report, so the final participation status may change.)

Nearly 40% of law enforcement agencies nationwide, including the New York City Police Department and Los Angeles Police Department, failed to report their 2021 crime data to the FBI, according to data provided to Axios Local from a partnership with The Marshall Project.

Why it matters: That will result in a data gap that experts say makes it harder to analyze crime trends and fact check claims politicians make about crime, reports The Marshall Project's Weihua Li.

  • The FBI's annual data set is the country's foremost way to understand how crime across the U.S. is changing, measuring things like how many murders or rapes took place last year or how many people were arrested.
  • "It's going to be really hard for policymakers to look at what crime looks like in their own community and compare it to similar communities," Jacob Kaplan, a criminologist at Princeton University, told The Marshall Project.
  • "The more detailed the data, the more effective our police can be. ... When we look back at 2021 numbers, they're not going to be particularly useful," John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, told Axios.

The backdrop: Last year, the FBI retired its nearly century-old national crime data collection program and switched to a new system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which gathers more specific information on each incident.

  • Even though the FBI announced the transition years ago and the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help local police make the switch, nearly 7,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies did not send crime data to the voluntary program in 2021.

What they're saying: Axios Local talked to law enforcement agencies around the country. Those that didn't submit any crime data largely blamed their non-compliance on staffing shortages and technical issues.

  • The Philadelphia Police Department was unable to collect NIBRS data until its new reporting systems went live last April. There was a "significant project delay" to update its legacy systems, which was exacerbated by the pandemic, PPD Sgt. Eric Gripp told Axios.
  • The Des Moines Police Department moved to a new records management system that was incompatible with the state of Iowa's system, which reports data to the FBI. Transferring over records required a manual fix, but there wasn’t enough staffing to do it in time, according to DMPD Sgt. Paul Parizek.
  • “We just got certified last week to do submissions,” Peoria (Ill.) Police Department records administrator Shawn Wetzel said. “It has been a big challenge with the vendor trying to figure out how to get the [coding] right to provide that electronically. But it's being worked out and we hope to be uploading the data this month.”

Worth noting: Law enforcement agencies nationwide have received over $160 million in federal funding to help with the transition since the switch to NIBRS was announced in 2015.

The other side: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation transitioned to the NIBRS system in the 1990s, which accounts for the state’s higher reporting rate, TBI’s Dale King tells Axios.

  • King, who works with the state data system, helped write an article with the FBI warning states to work ahead of time on the NIBRS transition.
  • “Agencies that wait until 2021 to begin their transition efforts will likely discover that the process will be much more difficult than if they had begun their transition efforts sooner,” the article states.

The bottom line: Violent crime across America is set to be a top issue in this fall's midterms, and the data that many politicians will use to make their case on the topic will be — at best — incomplete.

Axios' Mike D'Onofrio, Monica Eng, Linh Ta and Adam Tamburin contributed to this report.

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This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

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