Every year, the FBI releases its annual year-end crime report, which is based on data provided voluntarily by police departments across the country. This report typically comes out near the end of the following year. (The 2020 report, for example, came out in September of 2021.) Quarterly reports were actually a relatively new innovation, having been introduced in 2020.
To track the numbers that police departments report, the FBI for decades used a system called the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) to collect data. But in 2021, the Bureau switched to a different system, called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which provides more details on crimes that are reported. Though the change is meant to improve tracking, this week’s announcement from the FBI highlights what experts say are serious concerns about its impact on crime statistics for years to come.
The problem is that a large portion of police departments do not have the NIBRS system, which is expensive and can be difficult to implement into a department. According to the Bureau of Statistics, it could cost up to $377,000 for a department to switch over to NIBRS and over $53,000 for annual maintenance. According to the FBI, 63% of all police agencies in the country are using the NIBRS system; however, many of the big cities, like New York and Los Angeles, don’t use NIBRS, which means their crime trends will be completely left out of the FBI’s data analysis for 2021, including the annual reports.
“The absence of the two largest cities in the country begs the question as to what kind of confidence the public should have in the numbers produced by the FBI,” Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says. “This is a time period in which we really want to know what’s happening with respect to the most serious crimes. The uncertainties around the data are going to make definitive conclusions very difficult to draw.”
The FBI did not respond to a request for comment on the criticism of their collecting process and releasing the information.