The FBI released its crime report for 2021 – but it tells us less about the overall state of crime in the US than ever

PRIYA KRISHNAKUMAR Published October 5, 2022

CNN — The FBI just released its 2021 Crime in the Nation Report, which is typically the most comprehensive snapshot of crime in the United States. But only 63% of the nation’s more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies submitted data for 2021 — the lowest level of participation the FBI has reported since at least 1979. Only 52% of all agencies submitted a full year’s worth of data, the FBI said.

A change in how the FBI requires agencies to report crimes in 2021 has led participation to plummet. Participation is voluntary and several of the biggest police departments in the country, including the LAPD and NYPD, did not submit any data at all to the FBI last year, according to the agency. The agencies that submitted at least partial data serve about 65% of the country’s population.

The data collection system, called NIBRS (National Incident Based Reporting System), requires greater detail (and effort) in logging crimes, which the FBI said has lowered participation rates. As a result, the 2021 report relies heavily on estimates for their national figures.

The new report estimates an overall decline in violent crime by 1% from 2020, driven largely by reductions in the robbery rate, which declined by 8.9%. The agency also reported a 4.3% increase in homicides between 2020 and 2021.

NIBRS is intended to “provide more useful statistics to promote constructive discussion, measured planning, and informed policing,” according to its website.

But it’s unclear how useful this latest release is given the record-low participation from local agencies — just a few weeks before the November midterm elections, where crime has become a dominating topic.

“We are currently in a period in which there’s significant concern awith crime, and violent crime in particular,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist and professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “So this is exactly the wrong time to be producing crime statistics that are so significantly based on estimates.”

Switching to a more detailed data collection method has lowered participation

In 2015, the FBI announced that it was transitioning away from its previous data reporting system, the UCR Summary Reporting System (SRS), in favor of NIBRS-only data collection. SRS allowed agencies to aggregate monthly totals of eight categories of crime: murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, arson, motor vehicle theft, burglary and larceny.

But NIBRS provides detailed reporting on dozens of different types of crimes. It gives greater context about each individual crime committed, including the relationship between the victim and the offender, the type of weapon used, the time of day the crime was committed or if the incident was cleared.

Although NIBRS was first introduced in the 1980s, law enforcement agencies — from local police departments to county sheriff’s offices — could submit their data to the FBI using the simplified SRS until 2020. Many agencies have been slow to make the switch to NIBRS. While some have been using NIBRS to report their crime statistics to the FBI for decades, many have not.

Many agencies have been slow to make the switch to NIBRS. While some have been using NIBRS to report their crime statistics to the FBI for decades, many have not.

The 2021 report is the first year all agencies have been required to submit NIBRS data.

When the transition was announced, the FBI estimated that they expected an initial participation rate of 75% — much higher than the actual 63% participation rate revealed in Wednesday’s report.

The lack of comprehensive data — and monthslong delay between the end of the year and when the report is published — has led other organizations to fill in the gaps.

The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), a nonprofit that studies criminal justice policy, published a study in January analyzing 2021 crime trends across 27 major cities in the US. Their findings were similar to the FBI’s estimate: homicides rose by 5% and aggravated assault rose by 4% between 2020 and 2021, indicating that the steep increases in violent crime were leveling off.

Analytics company AH Datalytics, which maintains an up-to-date survey of murders in every major US city with more than 100,000 residents, reported similar findings — a 5.7% increase between 2020 and 2021. But these groups have expressed concern about their role in informing the public.

“I can think of no other system in American culture today where we accept this archaic data collection system,” said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. “It’s absurd that people have made private citizens to take it upon themselves to guesstimate what our national murder trend is.”

Where are the biggest gaps?

The FBI has spent tens of millions of dollars training law enforcement agencies across the country on how to use this new system, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Readers can look up how much money their local law enforcement agency has received from the federal government to make the switch here. Several agencies appear to have received grant money, but did not report any NIBRS data to the FBI in 2021.

There are many contributing factors to the low participation rates, Asher told CNN, ranging from technical challenges to low incentives to adapt to the new system.

“There hasn’t been a lot of political pressure,” Asher said, citing the voluntary nature of the reporting as another one of the challenges. “You have to train your officers in new ways of doing things … it’s hard to overcome the momentum of a system that’s been around for 80 years or so.”

In some of the country’s largest states, very few agencies reported last year’s data to the FBI. Only 2% of California’s more than 700 agencies reported any data to the FBI. In Florida, only two agencies reported data.

It may be years until the share of agencies reporting with NIBRS catches up to pre-2021 participation levels, but data from 2022 does show improvement. By September this year, the FBI reported it had already received NIBRS data from 60% of law enforcement agencies across the country, indicating that next year’s report may be more robust.

A murky picture of crime after years of unrest

Last year’s UCR report saw a nearly 30% increase in homicides from 2019, the highest year-over-year increase recorded in FBI history. The alarming jump came during a year which saw a global pandemic, massive civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, and unique economic and social stressors.

The 2021 report could have provided an essential look into the state of crime in a country emerging from a historic, tumultuous period. But while the NIBRS data does provide new details into certain crimes, the current nationwide picture remains unclear — especially because the FBI’s 2022 report will likely not be published until the end of 2023.

However, other sources have indicated that the historic rise in crime the nation saw in 2020 has leveled off.

While the FBI has only reported agency-level data from 2022, both CCJ and AH Datalytics have released national findings from this year. In its mid-year report, the CCJ found that across 29 major US cities, homicides had declined 2% from 2022, but aggravated assaults and robberies had increased by 4% and 19% respectively. AH Datalytics has reported a 4.5% decrease in murders across the cities it surveys.

Until agency participation in NIBRS increases, the FBI may have to continue to rely on estimates for their national crime reports — but comprehensive, up-to-date data about crime in the United States is essential in setting policy, allocating police funding, and for informing the public, experts say.

“Credible crime trend data is more important than it has been in 25 years — but now the numbers are at their most uncertain,” Adam Gelb, CEO of the CCJ, told CNN. “This [information] void allows speculation and manipulation, and further erodes trust and confidence in the justice system, and in government generally.”