Jun 14, 2022 - News

Tennessee law enforcement bucks data reporting trend

Data: FBI, The Marshall Project; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios Visuals

Tennessee law enforcement agencies performed better than many counterparts across the country when it came to reporting annual crime statistics to the FBI last year, according to data provided to Axios via a partnership with The Marshall Project.

  • More than 93% of agencies in Tennessee reported 2021 data, compared to about 60% nationwide.

Why it matters: The Volunteer State bucked a trend that will result in a data gap experts say makes it harder to analyze crime trends and fact-check claims politicians make about crime, per The Marshall Project, a nonprofit U.S. criminal justice watchdog.

The big picture: Nearly 40% of agencies across the country, including the New York and Los Angeles police departments, did not submit any data in 2021.

Zoom in: Tennessee officials say the state has collected detailed data for decades, which helped drive compliance with the new federal reporting system.

  • Data experts with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation tell Axios they're working to help other states that are behind.

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, nearly 7,000 of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies did not send crime data to the voluntary program in 2021.

State of play: Data collected by The Marshall Project shows departments in Tennessee's largest cities — including Nashville — submitted statistics for all 12 months of 2021, while some smaller agencies reported data for one to 11 months.

  • The TBI tells Axios data from some small agencies might reflect no reported crime for portions of the year.

What they're saying: The bureau transitioned to the NIBRS system in the 1990s, which accounts for the state's higher rate of reporting, TBI's Dale King tells Axios.

  • King, who works with the state data system, helped write a spring 2020 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: King says the more detailed data — which can track the timing and location of crimes and the relationships between suspects and victims — could prove pivotal in crime prevention. TBI also shares data with nonprofits, including sexual assault centers and domestic violence groups, that use the information to support survivors.

  • "I preach to our state and to anyone else who will listen: Use the data," King says, his voice breaking. "To me as a domestic violence survivor, it's all about the survivors, it’s all about the people."
  • "It's so meaningful. It can save that person from having to endure this. … If we can help stop crime, then we need to help stop crime."

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