Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

What your public reads in headlines about the crime rate may have very little to do with the community you police. None of what follows is meant to criticize the FBI’s crime reporting, but public opinion can be skewed without an understanding of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program’s purpose and limitations. Here are some keys to interpreting national crime statistics for your customers.

The statistics are national, not local

The prime benefit of the UCR is the ability to compare national crime rates by category over time. In its 90th year, the UCR still relies on voluntary reporting by law enforcement agencies based on crimes reported to the police. Participating agencies cover 98 percent of the population in UCR reporting, with fewer than half of agencies participating in the more extensive National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). But averages can mean little when comparing individual cases or community profiles. As the old saying goes, a man can drown in a river that is 6 inches deep on average.

Part I crimes make the headlines

The categories of crime that generate headlines from UCR reporting miss the kind of criminal activity that is often of the greatest local concern. Non-felony assaults, domestic violence, drug traffic, drunk driving and sex offenses other than rape are reported as Part II offenses and get fewer headlines. The Part I crimes are basically divided into violent crime and property crime. The headline “Violent Crime Down” says nothing about Anytown, USA, where you work.

The stats are old news

The FBI issues statistics derived from Uniform Crime Report in the year following their collection. Preliminary results may be posted at the beginning of the calendar year of the first half of the preceding year, but annual aggregate statistics are released in the fall. It takes time to compile and complete the massive report with its many features and charts. The 2017 statistics were released in September 2018, with the first half of 2017 announced in January. Spikes, fast rising trends and headlining crimes won’t show up in national statistics until next year, if at all.

Good police work can increase the numbers

Because the UCR is based on reported crime, it depends on the accuracy of reports from law enforcement, which, in turn, depends on reporting by victims and witnesses. If confidence in a police agency increases it is likely that more citizens will report criminal activity with the belief the police will take action. If awareness of a certain type of criminal activity increases – such as hate crimes, domestic violence, or fraud – it is likely that reporting of those crimes will increase. We know from victim surveys that a large pool of crime goes unreported. If reporting patterns change it does not mean that actual crime activity has changed. Police leaders must be diligent in shedding light on local crime trends as affected by police activity.

NIBRS will peel the onion

For all of its benefits, the original UCR intentionally overlooked a major part of the crime picture by the hierarchy rule. If a criminal event included a number of individual offenses such as a burglary, arson and sexual assault, only the most serious would be reported. The National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) not only adds 52 offenses to crime reporting, it includes up to 10 additional offenses for which arrests are reported. This – like increased victim reporting and increased awareness of specific criminal activity – may likely appear to indicate a surge in crime due to more accurate reporting. (The FBI is transitioning to collecting UCR data only through NIBRS by January?1, 2021. For more information, click here.)

Fear of crime often doesn’t correlate to statistics

While parents fear that their children will be killed in a school shooting or abducted by a stranger, the likelihood of either of these events is very remote compared to death at the hands of a trusted family member or friend, or a vehicle crash without properly used seatbelts and child restraints. What your public fears may bear no rational relationship to your community’s crime rate whether it is low or high.

Leadership and communication is key

Law enforcement must partner with other community leaders to provide a true picture of crime risks, causes and responses in order for citizens to participate in formulating solutions to crime and disorder. Emotional responses based on fear can drive political agendas that divert attention and resources away from problems that can be rationally analyzed and addressed. While it is important to participate in national crime reporting through UCR-NIBRS, the real crime picture in any community must be drawn locally.

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