Jul 12, 2023 - Politics

Nearly half of Florida's population excluded from state crime data

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

To attract Republican primary voters across the country, Gov. Ron DeSantis is pitching himself as a "law-and-order" presidential candidate. His proof: Florida's 50-year crime low.

Yes, but: Nearly half of the state's population is excluded from 2021 crime figures estimated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), according to data provided to Axios by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering criminal justice.

  • Florida's participation rate in the FBI's national data collection is also the lowest of any state in the country.

Why it matters: The data gap means it's nearly impossible to compare Florida's crime rate to other states or current crime statistics with data from past years.

Catch up quick: The gap, in part, is a result of the FBI's decision in recent years to retire its nearly century-old national crime data collection program and switch to the National Incident-Based Reporting System.

  • FDLE told The Marshall Project it had to use estimates because some local agencies are still using the old system while others have transitioned to the new one.
  • For instance, none of Hernando County's population was included in FDLE's 2021 crime report. A spokesperson for the county sheriff's office said the agency had reported data through the FBI's new system.
  • Meanwhile, Citrus and Polk counties' populations are 100% represented in Florida's 2021 crime data, but neither county gave data to the FBI using the new system.

Zoom in: It's not just the governor who's using the incomplete data. Hillsborough's top prosecutor, Suzy Lopez, said the county is "safer today than it used to be in just under one year" as she filed paperwork last week seeking a full term.

  • Her office did not say what data or evidence informed her statement. Instead, spokesperson Erin Maloney noted changes Lopez's office has made, including prosecuting "more juveniles as adults for dangerous firearm-related crimes."

Meanwhile, Hillsborough County is not fully reflected in any dataset. Less than 5% of the county's population is covered in FDLE's 2021 crime report, per The Marshall Project, and the county sheriff's office hasn't submitted data to the FBI, either.

  • Spokesperson Amanda Granit told Axios the department transitioned to the new system, but it stopped submitting data two years ago after noticing discrepancies between what it reported and what appeared on the state's dashboard.
  • Once the state fixes the mistakes, the sheriff's office will resume data submission, Granit said.

What they're saying: "Relying on the incomplete data to say that crime recently went down is disingenuous," Lyndsay Boggess, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, told Axios.

  • Andrew Warren, who DeSantis ousted and replaced with Lopez, arrived at a similar conclusion in remarks to The Marshall Project. "When there's no data, it gives people the license to say whatever they want," he said.

The other side: The governor's office did not answer The Marshall Project's questions about the reporting gap and referred the outlet to FDLE, which said its methodology is "statistically sound" and "accurately represents" Florida's crime rate.

Of note: Florida's crime trends align with the national one, The Marshall Project reports. Even though current crime data can't be compared to years past, the state’s overall crime rate was on a downward trend before 2021.

The bottom line: Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties are among a number of Tampa Bay agencies that did not submit crime data to the FBI in the last two years.

  • Reasons for the lack of adoption of the new system vary. FDLE told The Marshall Project the state expects counties to fully transition in the coming years. Until then, the department will continue to rely on estimates to close the reporting gap in its annual crime report.

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