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Why Is Murder Up In Some Places, Down in Others? No One Knows

Murder totals rose nearly 30 percent nationally in 2020, and available data suggests a smaller percentage increase occurred last year. Still missing is a national data infrastructure that could show why things are getting better or worse, writes crime statistics expert Jeff Asher for CNN.. Learning why murder becomes more or less prevalent could help officials make better decisions about deploying police, regulating guns and providing social services.

Both Dallas and St. Louis saw declines in 2021 -- by 13% and 25%, respectively -- after large increases in both cities in 2020. Police departments in both cities pointed to smarter policing. Local community leaders and activists in St. Louis, by contrast, credited "a renewed focus at the grassroots level to address and combat the issue," rather than policing.

Neither argument has a clear evidentiary base supporting it yet. Murder often goes up or down in a city from one year to the next for complex reasons that lack obvious explanations, Asher says. Sometimes murder goes up or down because of randomness in the share of shootings that proved to be fatal. Murder rose in both Atlanta and Hartford, Ct., but the number of people who were shot in each city fell last year relative to 2020.

Asher says the FBI's Uniform Crime Report program "is imprecise and woefully slow," as local law enforcement agencies report data to state agencies, which report it to the FBI. The FBI then reports it to the public by the end of September for the most recently completed year.

\. The FBI does not require law enforcement agencies to collect and report data specifically on shootings where a person is injured but not killed, despite a record 77 percent of murders having been committed with a firearm in 2020.

Asher says, "This information is critical for evaluating the degree to which policing strategies, community interventions, or just plain luck contributed to changes in gun violence."

The FBI attempted to address this problem in 2020 by reporting national crime estimates quarterly, providing an important first glimpse at the breadth of 2020's murder rise.

In 2021, the FBI has not published quarterly crime estimates because too few local agencies are regularly reporting data to federal law enforcement. The problem appears to stem from the FBI's switch in 2021 to the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). Agencies were required to submit data to the FBI only via NIBRS starting January 1, 2021, but many agencies have not yet transitioned to this new system.

It's not yet clear how many agencies submitted data to the FBI through NIBRS in 2021, but the FBI has set a threshold of 60 percent of eligible agencies for making quarterly crime estimates and it has so far fallen short of this threshold in each quarter of 2021. One possible workaround for this data desert, Asher writes, would be for more law enforcement agencies to embrace 21st century data reporting systems. Many -- though not all -- large agencies collect shooting data, but only a handful of cities -- like Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Rochester, New York, -- publish victim-level data in near real-time.

Where we go from here is a mystery, Asher says.


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