Jun 14, 2022 - News

Washington police agencies buck trend of not reporting crime data

Data: FBI, The Marshall Project; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios Visuals

Nearly all of Washington's police agencies reported 2021 crime statistics to the FBI, even as 40% of law enforcement agencies nationwide failed to do so, according to data provided to Axios by The Marshall Project.

Why it matters: Washington state law enforcement agencies bucked a trend that experts say will result in a data gap that makes it harder to analyze crime trends and fact-check claims politicians make about crime, per The Marshall Project, a nonprofit criminal justice news organization.

  • "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, said.

What happened: Roughly 9 out of 10 police agencies in Washington state submitted full or partial 2021 crime data, according to The Marshall Project’s dataset.

  • That's far higher than the 6 out of 10 of agencies that did so across the rest of the country.
  • Washington's actual reporting rate is in fact even higher, as some agencies that submitted crime statistics to the FBI shortly before a March reporting deadline weren’t captured in The Marshall Project’s dataset. (This includes the police department in Tukwila, south of Seattle.)
  • Other agencies listed as not reporting were all in jurisdictions of about 10,000 residents or fewer — or were tribal police agencies.
  • The state's largest departments, including in Seattle, King County, Tacoma, Spokane and Vancouver, Wash., all reported data to the FBI.

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, 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.

What they're saying: Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the new reporting system makes it easier to compare crime rates from year to year as well as trends between jurisdictions.

  • He said his organization, which acts as a clearinghouse for crime data from local police agencies, has been working with local departments on the transition to the new reporting system for several years.
  • “The FBI in fact sends other states to us for advice, and we are pretty proud of that,” Strachan told Axios last week.

The big picture: Roughly 40% of law enforcement agencies nationwide, including departments in New York City and Los Angeles, did not submit any data in 2021.

Between the lines: Strachan said budget and staffing issues may have made it more difficult for some smaller law enforcement agencies around the country to transition to the new reporting system.

  • Other police officials nationwide told Axios reporters they've been stymied by technical issues that they're still working out.

The bottom line: Regardless of the reasons, the data deficit could make research and policy development complicated — especially in states that have much lower rates of reporting than Washington.

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