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FBI to Overhaul Crime Tracking Program and Encourage Local Agency Cooperation

by Lonnie Burton

For more than eighty years the FBI has operated the Uniform Crime Report (UCR), which allows law enforcement agencies to report and compile numbers and types of crimes that were reported to them. The FBI issues reports based on these data, and more consequentially, criminal law and sentences often rely on these statistics.

The only problem, however, is that the UCRs are insufficient and superficial, and according to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee of criminal justice officials headed by Janet L. Lauritsen of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the system is flawed and in need of modernization.

Federal authorities are in the process of attempting to convert hundreds of law enforcement agencies to a new reporting system that would account for the "scores" of offenses that have to date gone unrecorded.

For example, an unknown number of crimes are left out of the UCR annually because they were one of a series of crimes. When a murder is committed, other less serious crimes committed at the same time -­like burglary, rape and robbery -- go unrecorded.

The old UCR crime summary tracks only 10 specific offenses, and does not record crucial details about race, gender and relationships of victims and offenders. Other specific information such as where the crime occurred and specific weapons involved are similarly not included.

These "giant holes" in reporting and recording of crime statistics cast serious doubt on the reliability of the methods used to determine how hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money is spent in the criminal justice system, federal authorities acknowledge.

In place of the UCR, the FBI is expanding its use of a National Incident-Based Recording System (NIBRS) that has the capacity to account for much of what is lacking in the UCR. The NIBRS tracks 24 major offenses instead of 10; it records whether law enforcement used deadly force, and to what extent law enforcement encounters involved minority suspects.

The NAS committee recommends "full-scale adoption of incident-based crime reporting," but FBI officials say that full-scale implementation of the NIBRS could take as much as five years.

Assistant FBI Director Stephen Morris, who oversees the bureau's crime data collection, says just 6,300 of the nearly 18,300 U.S. police agencies report the more detailed crime information to NIBRS, while about 10,000 provide basic data summary. Among the largest police departments not to participate are New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.

"For whatever reason, police departments have not been willing to expend the extra effort to do it," said Carnegie Mellon University Professor Alfred Blumstein, who has spent decades researching crime statistics. "How the FBI is going to get that extra cooperation is unclear right now."

One reason for the lack of cooperation, according to the NAS committee, is that some police departments downgrade crimes before reporting them to make their cities seem less violent.

The need for better crime reporting and statistics is vital, police groups say. The NIBRS will improve the ability for law enforcement to better address the public's concern regarding crime in their communities, allow agencies to allocate resources more effectively, and provide a comprehensive view of crime in the United States.

Morris said federal officials are in the process of auditing about 400 agencies for conversion to the new system. Estimates indicate that converting even a small department to the NIBRS could cost $100,000 or more. "Some state systems are so old, they can't push that amount of data to the FBI," said the head of the International Association of Police Chiefs.

FBI officials hope that the recent attention on the current system's shortcomings will prompt faster change. It is "essential to recast the enterprise of crime data collection by constructing a rigorous modern classification of criminal offenses," the NAS committee reported.