Jun 14, 2022 - Politics

Inconsistencies in Arizona reporting could complicate crime data comparisons

Months of 2021 FBI crime data reported in Arizona, by agency
Data: FBI, The Marshall Project; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios Visuals

Several major law enforcement agencies in the Valley, including the Phoenix Police Department and Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, failed to report 2021 crime statistics to the FBI’s new reporting system, according to data provided to Axios from a partnership with the Marshall Project.

  • They were among the 40% of agencies nationwide that did not do so.

Why it matters: The Glendale, Phoenix and Tempe police departments, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and the Department of Public Safety were part of a trend that resulted in a data gap that will make it harder to analyze crime trends and fact-check politicians' claims about crime.

  • "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 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.

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

Details: Most of the Phoenix-area law enforcement agencies that didn't report 2021 crime statistics to NIBRS said the reasons were technical in nature.

  • They said their old systems largely weren’t compatible with NIBRS and they'll begin reporting to the FBI again as soon as they upgrade those systems.
  • NIBRS requires a wealth of information that the old system didn’t, including victims' race and age or the time of day crimes were committed.
  • Modern crimes like cyber stalking weren't tracked, and the old system counted only the most serious offense in any incident.
Share of Americans living in counties that reported no FBI crime data in 2021, by race/ethnicity
Data: FBI, The Marshall Project, 2020 U.S. Census; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Phoenix PD told Axios the department is still transitioning to a reporting system that's compliant with NIBRS, but spokesperson Sgt. Vincent Cole said the agency "encountered multiple challenges with our current records management system when trying to prepare for the many additional data elements required for NIBRS reporting."

  • The department "will rejoin the FBI list of participating agencies as soon as we are able to," Cole said.
  • In the meantime, Phoenix is still providing crime statistics to DPS using the format of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system and is posting that data on the department's website.

Glendale PD is also in the process of upgrading to a new reporting system that's compliant with NIBRS. Spokesperson Sgt. Randy Stewart said the new system should be up and running by the end of the month, allowing the department to report its crime data to the FBI for the second half of 2022.

Tempe PD began reporting to NIBRS in January of this year, Sgt. Hector Encinas, an agency spokesperson, told Axios, though FBI data shows the agency did report one month in 2021.

  • The system Tempe uses wasn't able to accommodate the new data that NIBRS required, so the agency had to upgrade it.
  • Tempe PD's vendor is currently working out some bugs in the system, Encinas said, and Tempe will resume NIBRS reporting once that's completed.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office told Axios that NIBRS significantly increased the amount of data that its deputies must document, which required the agency to create a new reporting system.

  • MCSO spokesperson Norma Gutierrez-Deorta said the new system requires data not only on each individual crime incident, but on separate offenses within each incident, as well as information on victims, known offenders, relationships between victims and offenders, people arrested and property involved in the crimes.
  • The agency recently began testing its own new system for incident reporting. Once it's online, MCSO will have to validate six months of data before it can send its data to the FBI, which it does through DPS.

DPS is collecting NIBRS data through its Spillman Records Management system, which is compliant with the FBI, but it isn’t yet submitting that information because it hasn't completed the certification process, spokesperson Bart Graves told Axios.

  • Each agency that submits information to NIBRS must complete a certification process that includes submitting incident-based data for six consecutive months without exceeding the allowable error rate, Graves said.
  • DPS’ Spillman team is auditing the department's data in anticipation of future submissions to NIBRS.

Of note: Most Arizona law enforcement agencies report to the FBI through DPS.

Meanwhile: FBI data shows the Goodyear Police Department submitted only six months' worth of data last year, but spokesperson Lisa Berry said the agency reported a full year’s worth of information to NIBRS through DPS.

  • The second half of 2021 didn’t show up in the statistics Axios reviewed because Goodyear didn’t submit that data to DPS until last month.

The big picture: Most of the Valley's law enforcement agencies reported all of their 2021 data to NIBRS, including Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Peoria, Scottsdale and Surprise.

The bottom line: Statewide, reporting is less consistent. According to Axios' analysis, only 52% of Arizona law enforcement agencies reported a full 12 months' worth of crime data to the FBI for 2021 while 63% submitted at least some data.

  • 37% of agencies didn't submit any information for the year.

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