When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his bid for the presidency on Twitter Spaces last month, he touted Florida’s low crime rate as a proud accomplishment. His statement rests on incomplete crime data. About half of the agencies that police more than 40% of the state’s population are missing from figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) used for a state-wide estimation, The Marshall Project reports. Participation in national data collection is even lower. Only 49 agencies from Florida, representing less than 8% of police departments, were included in an FBI federal database last year. This means more than 500 police departments in Florida, including most of the largest agencies, like the Miami Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, and the St. Petersburg Police Department, are missing from the national context. Florida’s participation rate is the lowest of any state, making it nearly impossible to compare Florida’s crime rate to other states or to compare Florida’s current statistics with data from past years. “In order to talk accurately about a problem, we need to be able to define the problem correctly,” said Brendan Lantz, a criminologist at Florida State University. “And we simply cannot do that with the existing data in Florida.”
A FDLE spokesperson said the department had to create estimates because police agencies reported data through two systems as part of the FBI’s decision to modernize how it collects crime data. Many law enforcement agencies were stuck in the transition from the old crime data collection system, the Summary Reporting System, to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). To fill in the data gap, the state said it had to rely on estimation methods to evaluate crime rates for agencies that didn’t submit their data in 2021. The crime data gap creates a vacuum of facts and gives politicians the space to say whatever they want about crime, said Jeff Asher, co-founder of AH Datalytics. The FBI’s new crime data system will eventually enable criminologists and policymakers to analyze crime trends in greater detail. Many law enforcement agencies in Florida said they are in the process of transitioning their data management systems, though the process is complicated and can take years. In general, Florida’s crime trends align with national ones. Both property crime and violent crimes have been on the decline nationally, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. While experts say Florida’s current crime data cannot be compared with data from past years, DeSantis is right that the state’s overall crime rate was on a downward trend before 2021.