Here’s a guide for journalists who want to use them and members of the public who want to understand them.
By: Kelly McBride
The FBI will release its first full report on crime trends in the United States today based exclusively on its new incident reporting system. The report traditionally drops the last Monday of September, but it did not appear last week.
This new National Incident-Based Reporting System will be fertile ground for those who want to distort or exaggerate crime trends for political or commercial reasons. And, it lays bare a dirty secret about counting crime in the United States: As a nation, we keep horrible, incomplete data that makes it impossible to get an accurate sense of the scope or impact of crime.
Describing local crime trends with authority and context is the single biggest challenge for newsrooms across the United States seeking to improve their coverage of public safety. I’ve worked with more than 50 newsrooms attempting to make their reporting more helpful to news consumers. These newsrooms serve large metropolitan markets and tiny rural communities. They include newspapers, local TV, public radio, and digital startups.
None of them, not one, felt like they could get consistent crime data from the agencies they cover.
Take, for example, The Philadelphia Inquirer, which is trying to reimagine its crime coverage in the midst of a rise in gun violence. Like most big-city departments, the Philadelphia Police Department posts current crime stats, going back to 2007.
But the numbers are raw numbers and do not take into account the population of Philadelphia. Nor do they go back to the 1990s, when crime was much higher.
On top of that, the Inquirer covers seven counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey where most agencies are not as committed to publishing statistics.
“The end of Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) blinded us to much of what was happening in many of them,” said Dylan Purcell, data reporter at the Inquirer. “The state police recently relaunched their lookup tool but it’s got issues. The transition from UCR to NIBRS is a setback for crime reporters all around the country.”