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'Horrible, Incomplete' Crime Data Make Good Analysis 'Impossible'

The National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), the basis of FBI national crime data released Wednesday, will be fertile ground for those who want to distort or exaggerate crime trends for political or commercial reasons, writes Kelly McBride at the Poynter Institute. The system "lays bare a dirty secret about counting crime ... As a nation, we keep horrible, incomplete data that makes it impossible to get an accurate sense of the scope or impact of crime," says McBride. The Philadelphia Inquirer is trying to reimagine its crime coverage in the midst of a rise in gun violence. The Philadelphia Police Department posts crime stats going back to 2007, but the numbers do not take into account the population of Philadelphia. Nor do they go back to the 1990s, when crime was much higher.

“The end of Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) blinded us to much of what was happening in many [nearby counties,” said Dylan Purcell, data reporter at the Inquirer. “The state police recently relaunched their lookup tool but it’s got issues. The transition from UCR to NIBRS is a setback for crime reporters all around the country.” Crime data in the U.S. sometimes makes some cities seem more violent by eliminating suburbs that are separated by municipal borders. St. Louis is almost always at the top of the list of the cities with the highest murder rate, around 60 murders for every 100,000 residents. When you look at metropolitan areas, St. Louis’ rate falls to 13 murders for every 100,000 residents. The FBI data release focuses on seven crimes: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. They may not be the crimes that affect the most people, such as wage theft, environmental crimes and tax evasion.


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