Uniform Crime Reporting: The Purpose of Crime Data

Crime data has become a critical source of information for private, public and government organizations. Crime statistics help all stakeholders better understand and track current and historical trends, which can influence how programs and policies are created and executed.

Law enforcement organizations can use this information to make budget decisions and changes to police operations, while legislators can draft new laws aimed at addressing crime problems and researchers can use crime information to study the nature and causes of crime.

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) is widely used for national and state-specific crime statistics. UCR’s annual report “Crime in the United States” includes data voluntarily provided by nearly 18,000 cities, universities and colleges, and county, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.

Recent Crime Data Results

The online UCR Data Tool includes decades of information. Users are able to search for specific crimes and specific years to learn more about previous trends.

For example, in 2018, preliminary data for the first half of 2017 showed a decline in both violent crimes and property crimes as compared to the same time in 2016, according to a 2018 article published by the FBI. Overall violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) decreased by .8% and overall property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft) dropped 2.9%, according to the FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January – June 2017.

Violent Crime Rate

Uniform Crime Reporting: 1930 – Today

The UCR was conceived in 1929 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to fulfill a need for national crime statistics. The program was rolled out in 1930 with the FBI tracking and collecting crime data for seven offenses, adding an eighth in 1979.

UCR specifically tracks the following crimes:

  1. Criminal homicide
  2. Rape
  3. Robbery
  4. Aggravated Assault
  5. Burglary
  6. Motor Vehicle Theft
  7. Larceny
  8. Arson (added in 1979)

The program remained relatively unchanged until law enforcement called for a full effort to modernize UCR in the 1980s. As a result, the FBI developed a three-phase redesign that would ultimately enhance the program to meet future needs. That redesign resulted in the creation of the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which now tracks 46 crimes and includes information about each incident, as compared to the UCR which tracks the number of incidents and not specific details about each offense, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Today, UCR and the NIBRS are the two major sources for nationwide crime statistics, according to the NIJ. Both reporting systems are administered through the FBI with UCR as the main source of national crime statistics to date and the NIBRS serving as a subprogram that provides more detailed information from the 1980s to present. Other subprograms include SRS (Summary Reporting System), the LEOKA (Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted) and the Hate Crime Statistics Program.

In all, information gathered through UCR programs produces four annual reports and several periodic reports for agencies and the public to view.

Uniform Crime Reporting: Concerns and Limitations

While crime data can provide a clearer picture of overall trends, the FBI cautions that improper use of UCR information can cause misleading perceptions about law enforcement agencies and the community and citizens they serve.

When data users only use statistics while ignoring other factors such as population density, economic conditions and cultural factors, data can be used to falsely rank law enforcement agencies by just reported crimes, clearance rates and arrest data. Trying to identify how effective or successful a department is performing is not possible with just the data collected.

As a result, the FBI’s usage policies are as follows:

  • The FBI does not analyze, interpret, or publish crime statistics based solely on a single-dimension interagency ranking.
  • The FBI does not provide agency-based crime statistics to data users in a ranked format.
  • When providing/using agency-oriented statistics, the FBI cautions and, in fact, strongly discourages data users against user rankings to evaluate locales or the effectiveness of their law enforcement agencies.

The Future of Crime Reporting: Expanding Data Collection

The UCR program is working on several objectives to expand the program and provide reliable, accurate and accessible data. One goal is to shift from using the main reporting procedure to using NIBRS as the primary source of national crime statistics by 2021. To achieve this, agencies are in the process of converting from using the SRS to the NIBRS to report data.

Another effort is centered around expanding data collection. In 2016, NIBRS started collecting animal cruelty, identify theft and hacking/computer invasion. In 2018, NIBRS will begin collecting domestic and family violence data.

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