Nearly 40 percent of law enforcement agencies around the U.S. did not submit any data in 2021 to a newly revised FBI crime statistics collection program, leaving a massive gap in information that is sure to be exploited by politicians in midterm election campaigns already dominated by public fear over a rise in violent crime, report the Marshall Project and Axios Local.
The gap includes the two largest cities by population, New York City and Los Angeles, as well as most agencies in five of the six most populous states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
Last year, the FBI retired its nearly century-old crime data collection program, the Summary Reporting System used by the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. The agency switched to a new system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which compiles much more specific information on each incident.
Even though the FBI announced the transition years ago and the federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to help local police make the switch, about 7,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies did not successfully send crime data to the voluntary program last year.
Local agencies had until March 7 to submit data for the FBI's 2021 national crime report, so the final total
In 2020, around 2,700 agencies did not report crime data to the FBI.
The data gap will make it harder to analyze crime trends and fact-check claims politicians make about crime, and the uncertainty may continue for several years.
Criminologist Jacob Kaplan of Princeton University, said because many big cities and populous states stopped reporting, it’s especially difficult to draw conclusions from the 2021 data.
“I don't think you could get national numbers, at least not useful national numbers, from this data,” Kaplan said. “It's going to be really hard for policymakers to look at what crime looks like in their own community and compare it to similar communities.”
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called the 2021 data uncertainty “a mess," adding, “It's not going to do the national debate over crime levels or crime solutions any good at all."
When the FBI announced years ago that it would retire the old data collection system in 2021, no one could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and nationwide calls for police reform, or the recent rise in homicides and shootings.
Switching their data-reporting system wasn’t the priority of most police departments.
The FBI might have prevented the crisis on national crime data by keeping its previous systems running until enough agencies transitioned to the new one, Rosenfeld said.
“The FBI refused to do that, clearly on the assumption that if they gave agencies the option of continuing to report under the old system, they wouldn't transition rapidly,” Rosenfeld said.
The FBI said it will develop a methodology to account for the gaps and create national crime estimates with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. An FBI spokesperson said it has “identified a way forward to account for missing large agencies,” and will focus on producing reliable estimates for states with decent participation rates.
Many criminologists, wonder if national crime estimates are possible with so much missing data.
People are used to working with “5% or 10% of missing data,” said James Lynch, criminology professor at the University of Maryland and former BJS director. "But making an estimate when 35 percent of the data is missing ...that's not malpractice necessarily, but you don't want to do that.”