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The FBI's new crime report is in, but it's incomplete

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Crime is a huge topic in elections this November, and the FBI has now entered the chat. It has just released the Crime in the Nation report for 2021. But the bureau switched the way it collects crime data this year, and many police departments did not get on board. Los Angeles and New York City did not report to the FBI. In fact, only 63% of the country's police departments submitted anything, and some of the data that was submitted was incomplete. Weihua Li of The Marshall Project has been poring over the FBI's findings. Hey there.

WEIHUA LI: Hey there, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Glad to have you with us. OK. So it seems like some places were very good at submitting data under this new system. Others were very not good. Where are the big blind spots?

LI: Yeah, for sure. So we have some states like California and Florida, where almost no agency in that state submitted any data to the FBI. And there are also a lot of larger cities. You know, the largest police department, New York Police Department, didn't submit anything to the FBI. So a lot of blind spots.

KELLY: A lot of blind spots. I mean, I'm wondering how accurate the numbers can possibly be if - just to take the two biggest cities in the country, New York and LA, they didn't report at all.

LI: Yeah. Yeah, that's a really good question. And it's something that criminologists and people who work in criminal justice have been very worried about for a while now. So the FBI is used to receiving data from more than 90% of police departments across the country. But like you said earlier, in 2021, because they changed their data collection method, the number have dropped to roughly 60%. So instead of saying a finite number, you know, X number of crimes took place, they're saying we think the range of crime that took place in 2021 is somewhere between Y and Z. So for violent crime, property crime and homicides, the number of crimes could have gone up, gone down or stayed the same. We really don't know.

KELLY: Why did the FBI switch systems?

LI: In 1988, the FBI released a newer crime collection system, the National Incident-Based Reporting Program, NIBRS. And using that, a lot of agencies have been switching over the past couple of decades. Around 2015, 2016, the FBI decided that by 2021 they would retire the old system entirely and only accept data through the new system. So they will be provide the nation with data with a lot more granularity and detail and allow us to see what is happening. But unfortunately, what happened as a result is about 40% of agencies didn't make that switch, so they couldn't report their data to the FBI anymore.

KELLY: I see. I mean, having accurate numbers on crime feels important for all kinds of reasons. Are there any reliable takeaways from this report that might give us a sense of the scope of crime, trends in crime in the country?

LI: The top line finding the FBI found is number of violent crime, property crime and homicide didn't really change from 2020. And we have other reports from the Justice Department, namely the National Victimization Survey, that backs that finding.

KELLY: What does the FBI have to say about this? Are they defending the report?

LI: They are. The FBI sees this as a success story. The number of agencies that has switched to this newer system have been increasing. So they're really playing the long game in saying, sure, there may be a lot of uncertainty for a couple of years, but in the long run, we will know a lot more about crimes that were reported to the police. So they're holding onto hope.

KELLY: Weihua Li is a data reporter for The Marshall Project. Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.

LI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Fuller
Patrick Jarenwattananon