The sharp increase in the murder rate in the United States in 2020 continued through 2021.
A sample of 37 cities with data available for the first three months of this year shows that the number of murders has increased by 18% compared to the same period last year.
In the midst of an unstable period of crime, following trends has become particularly important so that police and local authorities can adapt prevention policies.
But it turns out that this year’s national crime publication will be the last of its kind as the FBI transitions to a crime-reporting system that will affect the public’s ability to gauge trends locally and nationally.
Monday, the FBI published preliminary statistics showing a significant increase in murders last year, with a 25% increase in agencies reporting quarterly data. The FBI has not received data from several cities with known large increases in murders like New York, Chicago and New Orleansbut cities of all sizes reported increases above 20%.
A 25% increase in murders in 2020 would mean the United States passed 20,000 murders in one year for the first time since 1995. (Final official numbers for 2020 won’t be released until late September.)
Although it is unclear what caused the spike in murders, some possibilities are the different stresses of the pandemic; the surge in arms sales during the crisis; and less faith in the legitimacy of the police linked to protests against police brutality.
The trend of the first months of this year does not necessarily indicate where things will end in 2021. Obviously, the pandemic could mainly recede by summer due to widespread vaccination, and a wide reopening of life could change the dynamics that led to the escalation of violence.
It may also be more difficult to assess crime trends more generally, especially those other than murder, with the FBI phasing out its use of one data source.
The Uniform Crime Report was launched in 1929 to serve as a national repository of crime data. On January 1, it made arguably its biggest change in its century of existence. The end result should be more detailed crime information, but this will likely come at the cost of less confidence in reported crime figures over the next few years.
The FBI has two basic national crime data collection systems that it relies on to create estimates of local and national trends. One is the Summary Reporting System (SRS), which has two main problems.
First, agencies use a “hierarchy rulemeaning they only count the most serious violation in an incident. If a burglar assaults a homeowner, the assault is counted, while the burglary is not. Or if a murder occurs during a robbery, only the murder is recorded. Second, there are only seven major categories of national crime data (arson is so underreported that the FBI does not estimate national numbers), so data on crimes like vandalism, fraud and kidnappings are not collected.
To address these shortcomings, on January 1, the FBI stopped collecting data through the SRS and switched to the National Incident Based Response System (NIBRS).
This new system, launched in 1988, collects data on a much wider range of offences, although this data has not been used until now for the Uniform Crime Report. The NIBRS removes the rule from the hierarchy; agencies can report up to 10 different offenses in a single episode.
The agencies also report a lot more detail on things like where the crimes are happening; the relationship between the aggressor and the victim; and how much drugs were seized in a drug raid. Like the FBI pointed outfor example, a concerned citizen can use the system to see how many kidnappings occur each year in child care centres.
“The move to NIBRS will be a huge step forward in understanding crime and victimization,” said Jerry Ratcliffe, professor of criminal justice at Temple University and host of the ““Reducing Crime” Podcast. “It can help police departments that have a strong analytical capacity to advance their crime prevention strategies.”
While phasing out SRS has benefits, failover presents short-term challenges. For starters, it’s unclear how many agencies will actually report crime data in 2021 using the new system.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics said in an email that the FBI conducted a survey in April 2020 to determine how many agencies planned to make the transition: “The results of this survey indicated that 75% of the forces of the (representing 81% of the U.S. population) have committed to moving to NIBRS by the January 1, 2021 deadline.”
That would be well below the roughly 90% of eligible agencies that report data under the SRS each year, and it’s unclear how many agencies have made the switch this year.
“Many police departments have not moved fast enough to adopt the move to NIBRS,” Ratcliffe said. “I suspect this is due to a lack of knowledge about NIBRS, the staffing challenges of the pandemic, and the impact of other more immediate pressures on policing.”
The Bureau of Justice Statistics said it was “working on a set of estimation procedures, with input and support from the FBI, to generate national crime statistics based on data reported by the NIBRS.” Even in the best of times, however, the number of murders reported nationally in 2021 will be much more of an estimate than what we are generally used to, and it will be difficult to assess crime trends for the next few years. years.
Another reason why it will be difficult to compare crime statistics in 2021 with previous years is that the elimination of the hierarchy rule will undoubtedly lead to an increase in the number of crimes reported.
This shouldn’t have much of an effect on the number of murders reported each year, since murder sits at the top of the pecking order. But there may be increases in other types of offenses that could create misleading headlines.
The FBI valued in 2014, 11% of all criminal episodes involved multiple offenses and conversion to NIBRS would result in a 2% increase in offences.
The benefit of the new system will be to better understand a wider range of crimes at local and national levels. But the expected growing pains will occur during a time when reliable reporting on crime trends may be particularly relevant.
Jeff Asher is a New Orleans-based crime analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. You can follow him on Twitter at @Crimealytics.