Crime—particularly the spike in murder over the past two years—is thought to be weighing heavily on the minds of voters. When the FBI reports national crime estimates for 2021 this fall, they have the potential to be a big deal, politically speaking. If murders are still way up relative to a few years ago, as most experts anticipate, the Republicans are sure to blame Democrats as the party in power. Whatever numbers the FBI releases, they are unlikely to provide the clarity into crime trends that the public deserves, analyst Jeff Asher writes in The Atlantic. That’s because of a significant, change to how the FBI collects crime data. As a result, saying with any confidence whether crime is up or down may be virtually impossible. On paper, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) is clearly superior to the Uniform Crime Report Summary Reporting System, which it replaces. NIBRS enables agencies to collect data on multiple offenses within the same incident (such as a robbery that leads to a murder), provides greater insight into a wider array of crimes compared with the old system, and allows for novel breakdowns of crime victimization by age, sex, and race.
There are major issues. Of the nation’s nearly 19,000 law-enforcement agencies, more than 7,000 are not yet reporting data to NIBRS. Though they have had years to prepare for this switch—the FBI announced the change in 2015 and gave out $120 million to help agencies make the transition—only 62 percent, covering just 65 percent of the U.S. population, are reporting to NIBRS for 2021. NIBRS is voluntary, so the FBI cannot compel reporting. Marcus Berzofsky of RTI International, who is working on the estimation problem of the NIBRS transition, anticipates that 32 of the 72 largest agencies will not report a full year’s worth of NIBRS data for 2021. Eight agencies covering 1 million or more people each will not report NIBRS data, including both the New York and Los Angeles police departments. Some states will have no crime estimates for 2021 at all, and perhaps even beyond.