The FBI released its 2021 crime report, but it tells us less than ever about the overall crime situation in the US.


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

FBI changes requiring agencies to report crimes in 2021 have reduced participation. Participation is voluntary and the country’s largest police departments, including the LAPD and NYPD, did not submit any data to the FBI last year, according to the agency. Agencies that have submitted at least partial data serve about 65% of the country’s population.

The data collection system, called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), requires greater accuracy (and effort) in crime reporting, which the FBI says has reduced participation rates. As a result, the 2021 report is based on their own national figures.

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

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

But it’s unclear how useful this latest release is given the low turnout for local agencies just weeks before November’s midterm elections, where crime has become a hot topic.

“We’re in an era where there’s a lot of concern about crime and particularly violent crime,” said Richard Rosenfeld of the Missouri-St. University criminologists and professors. Luis “So this is the wrong time to be making crime statistics based so heavily on calculations.”

In 2015, the FBI announced that it was moving away from its previous data reporting system, the UCR Summary Reporting System (SRS), in favor of NIBRS-only data collection. The SRS collected the agency’s monthly totals for eight crime categories: murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, motor vehicle theft, burglary and theft.

But NIBRS provides detailed reporting on dozens of crime types. It provides more context about each 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 whether the incident was cleared.

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

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

The 2021 report is the first year that all agencies were 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 complete data—and the one-month delay between the end of the year and the publication of the report—has encouraged other organizations to fill in the blanks.

The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), a non-profit organization that analyzes criminal justice policy, published a study in January that looked at crime trends in 27 major US cities through 2021. Their findings were similar to the FBI’s estimate: homicides rose 5% and aggravated assaults rose 4% between 2020 and 2021, indicating that increases in violent crime were leveling off.

Analytics company AH Datalytics, which conducts an up-to-date survey of homicides in all major US cities with more than 100,000 residents, reported similar findings: a 5.7% increase between 2020 and 2021. informing the public

“I can’t think of any other system in American culture today where we accept this archaic data collection system,” said Jeff Asher, crime analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. “It’s absurd that people have taken private citizens to guess what our national murderous trend is.”

The FBI has spent tens of millions of dollars teaching law enforcement agencies across the country how to use this new system, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Readers can see how much money local law enforcement agencies have received from the federal government to make a difference here. Several agencies appear to have received funding, but did not report NIBRS data to the FBI in 2021.

There are many factors behind low participation rates, Asher told CNN, 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 report as another challenge. “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 more.”

In some of the country’s largest states, very few agencies have 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 take years for the share of agencies reporting to NIBRS to reach pre-2021 participation levels, but 2022 data shows improvement. By September of this year, the FBI reported that it had received NIBRS data from 60% of law enforcement agencies across the country, indicating that next year’s report may be more robust.

Last year’s UCR report showed a nearly 30% increase in homicides from 2019, the largest year-over-year increase in FBI history. The alarming jump came in a year that saw a global pandemic, massive civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd, and unprecedented economic and social stress.

The 2021 report could provide vital insight into the state of crime in a country emerging from a turbulent and historic period. But while the NIBRS data provides new details about some crimes, the current national picture is unclear, especially since the FBI’s 2022 report won’t be released until late 2023.

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

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

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

“Credible data on climate trends is more important than it has been in 25 years, but now the numbers are most uncertain,” CCJ CEO Adam Gelb told CNN. “This [information] the gap allows for speculation and manipulation, and increases trust and confidence in the justice system and government in general.’