After spending nearly two years and $1.2 million switching to a new system for reporting crime, a full picture of crime trends in St. Louis city remains inconsistent, and the national picture isn’t much clearer. After winning state certification of its new system last fall, St. Louis stopped sending crime data to the state for eight months. The pause, which appears to have violated state law, resulted in the FBI publishing incorrect annual crime numbers for St. Louis in two national publications for 2021. The bureau acknowledged the errors after a St. Louis Post-Dispatch review of state and FBI data found the totals appeared to be up to 15 percent too low.
The incorrect data for St. Louis comes as experts express alarm about decreased police participation in the FBI’s crime reporting program in 2021. That was the first year the bureau required police to switch to a different way of tracking crime called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The change was intended to give a more complete picture of crime by capturing greater detail on incidents, victims and offenders. Police agencies have struggled to make the switch, leaving enormous gaps. “We need reliable crime data to evaluate the claims made by politicians, policymakers and others,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We need reliable data to replace guesses and baseless opinions.” The FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics have provided $120 million to bolster state and local NIBRS transitions, including $1.2 million for St. Louis. Still, more than 7,000 out of nearly 19,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide failed to submit any crime data in 2021, and only 52 percent of agencies submitted a full year’s worth. “We used to have 95%-97% of agencies reporting,” said Jeff Asher of AH Datalytics. “We’re probably talking about maybe 2024 or 2025 before reporting reaches where we were previously.”