Yesterday’s FBI Crime Report Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story
The rise of violent crime has been at the top of the news cycle for almost two years, and rightly so. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home mandates in effect across the country, homicide rates soared in the United States. Violent crime is on the minds of voters with almost 50 percent feeling it is a “very big problem,” and as in the past, it will no doubt be an important issue in the upcoming elections. Those on the campaign trail like nothing more than highlighting crime statistics to influence voters. But what’s often left out is that these statistics rarely tell the whole story. And given yesterday’s release of the FBI’s 2021 Crime Report, that incomplete picture could become a dangerous tool that makes us all far less safe.
Since 1930, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program has served as a yearly statistical compilation of state and national crime data. Practitioners, academics and policymakers use the report to assess trends, identify contributing factors, and enact or change policy to address crime levels.
During its almost century-long existence, there has been only one substantial change to the system, occurring in 1988, when the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) was introduced. The NIBRS collects significantly more information and includes more criminal offenses than the UCR, but until last year, the NIBRS data was not included in the yearly report.
With data that is almost ten months old, yesterday’s report will be the first publication using the FBI’s newly revised NIBRS-based collection program. The problem is, currently, only approximately 64 percent of the nation’s law enforcement agencies are reporting their data through NIBRS, and by the cutoff date for the 2021 report, it was even less. Major metropolitan cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and agencies in other populous states such as Illinois, Florida and Pennsylvania are missing.
The FBI previously announced that in states where the data reported by law enforcement agencies represents less than 80 percent of the state’s population, the results would not be published at all—meaning some entire states would not be represented. As of June 2022, the FBI clarified that all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia are certified to report crime data to NIBRS, but that data only represents roughly 66 percent of the U.S. population. So while the NIBRS may eventually provide a more in-depth analysis of crime at both the local and state level, the lack of law enforcement department participation in the FBI 2021 Crime Report makes it an unreliable source for analyzing crime trends or supporting political claims.
Unfortunately, you can bet that a number of people—from politicians to advocates, law enforcement to reporters—will use these numbers to try to depict the state of crime in the United States. They will be wrong and the policies and laws that spring from their statements will not address the true needs of each community. Most importantly, the people who win at the ballot box may get there for the wrong reasons.
The truth is, while data indicated that murders in 2020 were a national phenomenon, crime is a much more localized issue. Even a cursory glance at current, local, violent crime rates in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York City can vary significantly when compared to a national report. Although experts and policymakers have yet to pinpoint the exact reason for this spike in homicides, they did identify a variety of factors among them: an unstable economy, social anxiety and protests against the police.
Blaming criminal justice reform efforts for a crime wave is counterproductive when research shows there is likely no correlation between reforms and a rise in crime, especially when we are seeing equally increasing crime levels in jurisdictions that have implemented reforms and those that rejected them.
Instead of political parties pointing fingers at the other side, stakeholders must devise a plan to combat violent crime and restore safety in our communities. Simply relying on the findings of the FBI’s Crime Report will not provide an effective solution.