Politicians love to cite crime data. It’s often wrong

Amanda Hernández | Stateline.org (TNS)

When Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his presidential campaign in May, he proudly told the nation that Florida’s crime rate in 2021 had reached a 50-year low.

But really, DeSantis couldn’t say for sure.

That’s because fewer than 1 in 10 law enforcement agencies in his state had reported their crime statistics to the FBI. In fact, more than 40% of the Sunshine State’s population was unaccounted for in the data used by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in its 2021 statewide crime report.

In Wichita, Kansas, Democratic Mayor Brandon Whipple claimed in May that violent crime had decreased by half during his term. But Whipple’s source, the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, missed half the violent crimes recorded by the Wichita Police Department, possibly because the agency couldn’t mesh its system with the FBI’s recently revamped system.

Across the country, law enforcement agencies’ inability — or refusal — to send their annual crime data to the FBI has resulted in a distorted picture of the United States’ crime trends, according to a new Stateline analysis of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program participation data.

“We have policymakers making policy based on completely incomplete data. We have political elections being determined based on vibes rather than actual data. It’s a mess,” said Jeff Asher, a data analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics, a data consulting firm.

Experts warn that some policymakers, knowingly or unknowingly, use those flawed statistics to tout promising crime trends — misleading voters. The inaccurate data also can affect efforts to improve public safety and criminal justice, potentially leading policymakers to miss the mark in addressing real community issues.

“The problem for voters is that they don’t have very good information about what levels of safety actually are,” said Anna Harvey, a politics, data science and law professor at New York University. Harvey also is the director of the university’s Public Safety Lab and the president of the Social Science Research Council.

“They’re a little bit vulnerable to politicians who are kind of throwing around allegations and claims about crime that may or may not be accurate,” she told Stateline.

DeSantis faced criticism for repeating the incomplete numbers, and NBC News this summer reported that law enforcement rank-and-file had warned that the statistics weren’t correct.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement defended the numbers to NBC News, saying, in part, that “criticism about FDLE’s robust data collection methods is unfounded.”

FBI’s switch to a new system

A year ago, when the FBI initially released its 2021 national crime data, there wasn’t enough information to tell whether crime went up, went down or stayed the same. The FBI had estimated results for areas that declined to submit data or were unable to do so.

That’s partly because the FBI had rolled out a new reporting system. The data collection system, called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, gathered more detail on individual incidents but also required training and tech upgrades by state and local policing agencies.

For the first time in two decades, the national law enforcement reporting rate fell below 70% in 2021, primarily due to the FBI’s transition. In 2022, many law enforcement agencies across the country were not NIBRS-certified in time to submit their 2021 crime data, which contributed to lower reporting rates.

Even before the new system launched, there was a gap in reporting nationwide. Prior to 2021, 23% of U.S. law enforcement agencies on average did not report any crime data to the FBI. In 2020, 24% of agencies did not report, and in 2021, it surged to 40%.

Inconsistent reporting not only hampers the ability to draw comparisons over time and across state lines, but also injects uncertainty into discussions about crime, said Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s justice program. The Brennan Center is a left-leaning law and policy group.

“Issues like that are invariably going to lead to some people having a misunderstanding of crime data — makes it harder to talk about crime in some states, especially given the low participation rate in Florida, for example,” Grawert said in an interview with Stateline.

The FBI’s latest crime report, released earlier this month, offers a glimmer of progress toward transparency: Seventy-one percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide submitted data through NIBRS or the FBI’s previous reporting system, up 11 percentage points from last year. About 60% of participating law enforcement agencies submitted their data exclusively through NIBRS this year. The FBI accepted data through both NIBRS and the older system this year, a change from last year’s NIBRS-only approach.

According to the incomplete numbers, violent crime in the U.S. dropped last year, returning to pre-pandemic levels, while property crimes saw a significant increase.

While crime data reporting to the FBI is optional, some states, such as Illinois and Minnesota, have laws requiring their local law enforcement agencies to report crime data to their state law enforcement agencies. State law enforcement agencies often serve as clearinghouses for local crime data, and in some states, they are responsible for sharing this data with the feds. Some local agencies also may send their data directly to the FBI.

But some states lag.

Florida, Illinois, Louisiana and West Virginia, for example, all remain below the 50% reporting mark, which means less than half of the police departments in their states submitted 2022 crime data to the FBI. Despite these reporting rates, the data shows that greater shares of these state’s populations were represented in last year’s data than in 2021.

Florida has had the lowest reporting rate two years in a row — 6% in 2021 and 44% in 2022 — partly because of the state’s ongoing transition to NIBRS. For 2021, the FBI did not accept Florida’s data through the previous data collection system, which would have represented about 58% of the state’s population, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Public Information Office.

“It’s a problem in both red and blue states, it’s also a local issue,” Kylie Murdock, a policy adviser with Third Way, a left-leaning national think tank, said in an interview with Stateline.

“When people use this data to back up tough-on-crime approaches, and say, ‘Our approach in this state is working’ — when in reality, that’s not necessarily the truth because you don’t know the full scope of the problem,” said Murdock.

Roughly a quarter of the U.S. population was not represented in the 2022 federal crime data, according to a Stateline analysis. More than 6,000 of 22,116 law enforcement agencies did not submit data.

Major police departments, including those in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York, did not submit any data in 2021. NYPD said it couldn’t submit summary statistics in 2021 as it had previously because of the FBI’s change in requirements, but was NIBRS-certified this year. Both cities’ departments did submit summary data to the FBI in 2022 through the old reporting system.

The FBI’s 2021 agency participation data shows that the 10 states with the lowest reporting rates included a balanced mix of both blue and red states, while last year’s data shows more red states among the 10 states with the lowest reporting rates.

Political and social consequences

The gaps in the FBI’s crime data create significant challenges for researchers and policymakers attempting to make sense of crime trends. As elections draw near and crime has reclaimed the spotlight, these challenges become increasingly pressing.

During last year’s congressional elections, 61% of registered voters said violent crime would be very important when making their decision about whom to vote for, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.

While the overall violent crime rate has steadily declined on average over the past 20 years, the Pew Research Center suggested that voters might be reacting to specific types of violent crime, such as homicide, which saw a 30% increase between 2019 and 2020 — one of the largest year-over-year increases on record.

A lack of accurate, real-time crime data leaves voters vulnerable to political manipulation, said Harvey, the New York University professor.

“Voters tend to not have that kind of access. Politicians then try to play on voters’ concerns about crime, but without giving voters the information that will actually be useful for them,” Harvey said.

Experts expect that the challenge of incomplete national crime data — and the incomplete picture it presents — will persist for years because many law enforcement agencies still are working to adopt the new reporting system.

That could affect how policymakers allocate money for law enforcement, crime prevention programs and other public safety initiatives. With crime data, it’s important to know what types of crimes are included and to avoid narrow timeframes when describing trends, said Ernesto Lopez, a research specialist for the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research think tank.

“Oftentimes relying on the FBI data, which tends to be outdated, really allows politicians to sensationalize a few news stories. Without having more up-to-date data, it may not be accurate,” Lopez told Stateline.

“Politician or otherwise, when we talk about crime, it’s really important to have a larger context.”

Federal assistance

Law enforcement agencies nationwide have received over$180 million in federal funding to help with the transition since the FBI’s switch to its new NIBRS reporting system was announced in 2015. Many law enforcement agencies are still working to fully transition to the new system.

For example, in Louisiana, the agencies serving some of the state’s most populous cities, including Lafayette, New Orleans and Shreveport, did not report any data to the FBI last year because they were implementing new records management systems, according to Jim Craft, the executive director of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

Louisiana’s low reporting rate may be due to smaller law enforcement agencies reporting crime statistics through their local sheriff’s office, which makes it look like fewer agencies are reporting, Craft wrote in an email.

In Hawaii, the police departments serving Maui and Hawaii counties were not certified in time to submit data through NIBRS to the FBI last year, according to Paul Perrone, the director of the Hawaii Uniform Crime Reporting program. Last month, Hawaii became one of the few states where all law enforcement agencies are NIBRS-certified, Perrone wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, even as more law enforcement agencies submit data in coming years, experts warn that the FBI’s database accounts only for crimes reported to the police. And according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 50% of violent crimes and about 70% of property crimes are never reported.

Stateline is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization focused on state policy.

©2023 States Newsroom. Visit at stateline.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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