A shift in how the Columbus Division of Police is counting homicides — which the division says is to better align with the FBI’s standards — could lead to discrepancies in how the data is used for historical comparison.

Beginning in late 2022, Columbus police changed from counting all homicide investigations in a single category to three. Officials said the change is to keep in line with changes to how the FBI requires data to be reported by police departments. However, it has the potential to lead to difficulty in accurately assessing whether the number of deaths has increased, decreased or stayed steady with prior years.

Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York, said the change in counting homicides being made by Columbus is also being implemented by police departments across the country.

“Columbus is not doing anything I’m surprised by,” Snider said, noting, however, that there were potential discrepancies in how cases are being classified so far this year, including the deaths of two children under the age of 5.

In prior years, the FBI has used what had been called the Uniform Crime Report, a standardized way for law enforcement agencies across the nation to report their crime statistics in eight categories to the federal agency. In 2021, the FBI changed to using the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which has 52 categories of crimes to be reported.

“Homicide doesn’t mean murder,” Snider said. “They’re looking to separate homicide offenses where there’s intent to murder someone. … They’re trying to basically separate those (from cases where there’s negligence or unintentional death)…”

Already there have been at least two cases in just the first few weeks of 2023 where there appears to be a conflict in how Columbus police initially classified a case under the new system and how an expert in the FBI’s statistical gathering believes it should have been reported…

Snider said the death of a 5-year-old, not identified by police, who was allegedly starved to death after being denied medical attention by his mother, is an example of a case that should be counted toward the homicide total.

“That, to me, would be considered a homicide. Accidental child deaths are different from someone endangering a child and causing a death,” Snider said…

Snider said she doesn’t think there will be large disparities in numbers or dramatic changes in data if someone were looking to compare a city’s homicide rate year-over-year.

“I don’t think they’re trying to fudge their numbers or anything like that,” Snider said. “With the 52 offense levels in NIBIRS, they’re going to have to be way more careful in how they classify crimes. It’s not just eight major crimes…”

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