The FBI's crime statistics are likely flawed because the data collection relies heavily on state and local ordinances to provide the agency figures, however many states do not have the financial resources required for accurate data collection.
Researchers and policymakers rely heavily on data collected at a federal level because it offers a more holistic view of the state of the US. And they specifically look to the FBI for crime statistics. Unfortunately, recent news indicates that these numbers may not be accurate.
For the FBI to publish its annual crime statistics, it relies on cooperation from state and local agencies. Historically, those agencies sent their data to Washington DC using what is known as a legacy system. And while this system has taken on multiple iterations since the 1920s, none differed too greatly.
But that all changed in 2016. That year, the FBI began transitioning to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). It is costly, and paying for it falls primarily on state and local agencies.
The Justice Department has attempted to help with the cost, offering “more than $120 million in grants,” according to NPR. However, that has not been quite enough to offset the investment for many agencies, even for some of the largest in the nation. So many, including the San Francisco Police Department, anticipate the switch will take at least a few more years.
This delay wasn’t a problem at first. However, in 2021, “the FBI accepted data exclusively from the new NIBRS system, resulting in significant gaps that researchers say render the year’s report meaningless.” Those gaps arose from data from many agencies now missing, which is concerning news.
“In a news release, the Justice Department said ‘data cannot reliably be compared across years’ as ‘several of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies, as well as some states, did not make the transition.'” Those include Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. However, they were not the only agencies absent from the data.
Nationally, 18,812 law enforcement agencies cover municipal, state, and tribal jurisdictions. In 2020, 15,138 of them submitted crime data to the FBI. But in 2021, that number dropped to 11,883 agencies.
A drop of 3,255 reporting agencies may not seem like a huge deal. However, that gap in crime data turns out to be quite significant. One example of the drastic gap is in hate crime reports.
“The FBI annualized collection of data from law enforcement agencies saw 7,262 crimes motivated by race, religion, gender or other factors last year.” Technically, it’s a decrease from the 8,263 reports the years prior, which seems like good news. Unfortunately, since there are over 3,000 fewer reporting agencies, the FBI’s data is likely inaccurate.
But the story is a little more complex. There is no consensus between state, local, and federal authorities on what actually “constitutes a hate crime.” So, the data is a bit more fluid than you would find in other crime categories.
Additionally, even the agencies that track hate crime data don’t agree. For example, “Researchers cite the gulf between the FBI’s hate crime statistics compared to other data sets, such as the National Crime Victimization Survey reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.” So, without anyone agreeing, judging the FBI numbers is difficult, even with fewer agencies reporting.