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US Crime Statistics From FBI Should Be Viewed With Caution, Experts Warn

After a spike of homicides in 2020 and 2021, the rate of violent crimes, including homicide, in the US fell last year to pre-pandemic levels, even as other types of crime increased, data released this week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) show.

But experts say these findings should be viewed with caution, since much of it is based on incomplete data from local police departments.

The FBI data is based on voluntary reporting by individual law enforcement agencies, and last year, half of US police departments, including those in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York, failed to submit data for 2021.

In 2022, 83% of US law enforcement agencies submitted data to the federal government, which means that about 10% of the population is not represented in this data, according to the FBI. And while more localities are included in this year’s data release, researchers caution that department data can also be “patchy” because less than half of the nation’s violent crimes, like rapes and robberies, are reported to law enforcement, according to the Appeal.

This incomplete national data can then be used by police departments and officials to justify tough-on-crime agendas and to push back against reforms like zero-bail policies.

“You miss the full story when you have incomplete and patchy data,” said Insha Rahman, vice-president of advocacy and partnerships at Vera Institute of Justice. “The issue of crime is deeply weaponized and politicized and we see that come up especially during election cycles. Florida has very incomplete data but Governor [Ron] Desantis’s campaign is stating they’ve made Florida the safest state.”

In Florida, only 8% of the police departments are represented in the 2022 data, according to the Marshall Project.

Since 1930, the FBI has collected data from local police departments and shared the data annually through their Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In recent years, however, the bureau had been transitioning to a new data collection system, the national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS), which, according to the agency, offers more granular and better-quality data.

But only 52% of US law enforcement agencies had submitted their full 2021 data by the deadline, covering roughly 65% of the population. Before the transition to NIBRS between 95-97% of US police departments submitted their data.

This gap in data was consequential: it means that on the heels of an unprecedented single-year increase in homicides in 2020, and with crime a consistent top-of-mind issue for US voters, the FBI could not definitively say whether or not violence rose, fell or was unchanged in 2021.

Jeff Asher, a data analyst, and the group he co-founded, AH Datalytics, uses data from 90 police departments to paint a picture of homicides and police staffing levels across the country. In 2022, they found, similar to the recent FBI release, that homicides were slowly falling from their recent peak in 2020 and a suspected continuation of that increase in 2021. Still, Americans are deeply fearful of being victimized and politicians and police are seizing on this to win elections and overturn criminal legal policies such as eliminating sentencing enhancements and not charging juveniles as adults.

According to the FBI’s new data, violent crime – which includes murder, robbery, aggravated assault and rape – dropped by 2%. Even as the number of people killed appears to be falling, some common trends persist. Black Americans, who make up 13.6% of the population, accounted for 56% of the more than 16,000 homicide victims in the US. And of the 19,200 weapons used to kill someone in 2022, 15,000 – or 77% – of them were a firearms, usually a handgun.

Even with the most pristine data, the nuances of crime rates are often discounted in favor of anecdotes and viral videos that further political narratives, he said.

“Everyday people don’t know if the crime statistics are going up or down but they know how they feel and what they see in the media. That’s how people’s senses of safety are shaped,” said. “But we can use these statistics to help shape conversations, show trends and see where we need to pay more attention.”

Source: The Guardian