Academics and experts that track crime trends in America expect to get a second batch of FBI data Monday. These statistics will be courtesy of local police departments and provide a view of national trends for 2021.
This week, however, the agency stated that they would not release the statistics due to the inability of local police departments to provide data.
According to the agency, it had received data from 9881 of 18818 law enforcement agencies for 2021. To release data, agency required 60% participation. The agency made available non-aggregated data only for cities that have more than 100,000 inhabitants.
“It’s a pretty arbitrary threshold because 60% is completely meaningless. It’s not like 60% means the data is useful and 59% means the data is not useful,” Jacob Kaplan, a criminologist at Princeton University, tells TIME.
But behind the lack of participation is a little-noted switch in the FBI’s data collecting process—and it’s one that could have implications far beyond a single percentage point.
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Each year, FBI issues its year-end crime report. It is made from data provided voluntary by all police departments in the United States. The report is usually released at the beginning of each year. For example, the 2020 report was published in September 2021. In 2020, quarterly reports became a new concept.
The FBI has used data from decades past to keep track of the number police stations report. This system was called the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In 2021 the Bureau changed to a new system called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, (NIBRS). This provides details about crimes 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.
Problem is, a majority of police departments don’t have the NIBRS program. This is costly and may prove difficult for a department to adopt. A department could spend up to $377,000 and $53,000 annually to move to NIBRS according to the Bureau of Statistics. 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.”
A request by The FBI to comment about the criticisms levelled at them regarding their collection process and the release of information was unanswered.
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Homicide and crime have been prominent issues since the COVID-19 pandemic. Homicide numbers increased by 29% in 2020, per the FBI’s own report last year, which used UCR numbers. Although the increase was somewhat slower in 2021, many cities saw a record-breaking number of murders. The lack of specific data may make it hard to determine the exact cause. Some experts believe that it would help the FBI to better manage the data, in addition to the difficulties presented by the cities which have yet not adopted NIBRS. Does have. Although the new system permits for detailed incident-by-incident reporting it is aggregated by the Bureau before it can be made public. Some feel that the FBI should just release raw data as they get it. This means that instead of publishing the number of homicides in a particular city, the FBI would reveal the specific details for each one.
“I think if they release the full data it’d be really useful. COVID has shown us that crime trends change very quickly,” Kaplan says. “If they just release the detailed data every quarter that’d be better than having to wait for aggregated data that just shows us the number of crimes in big population groups.”
Crime is expected to be a focal point for the midterm elections and whatever the FBI’s data looks like, it will likely be a reference point for decision-makers and voters.
“[Crime data] influences policies, it influences politics. Most importantly it influences people’s perceptions of their community and other communities. Millions of dollars are doled out every year to support a whole variety of criminal justice programs,” Rosenfeld says. “We should have a firmer understanding of the data.”
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