Today the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) released preliminary findings of their soon to be released annual report, Crime in the United States: 2020. While the final publication has not yet been released, the data can be accessed through the Crime Data Explorer. Additionally, publications from prior years are accessible online.
The preliminary data revealed that violent crime is up for the first time in four years, with 1,277,696 violent crimes reported to United States law enforcement in 2020. The violent crime rate (which accounts for population size) was 387.8 per 100,000 — a 5.2% increase when compared with 2019 rates (380.8 per 100,000). The violent crime increase appears to be a result of increases in aggravated assaults (+12.0%) and murders (+29.4%). However, not all types of violent crime increased from 2019 to 2020 — robbery decreased 9.3% and rape (revised definition) decreased 12.0%. Conversely, property crime is down, with 6,452,038 property crimes reported to law enforcement in 2020. The property crime rate (again, accounting for population size) was 1958.2 per 100,000, which decreased 8.1% when compared with 2019 rates (2130.6 per 100,000). The decrease in property crime appears to be driven by decreases in burglary (-7.4%) and larceny-theft (-10.6%). In contrast, auto thefts increased (+11.8%). It is important to note that crimes of arson are not included in property crime estimates, due to disparities in the agencies that submitted data for arson.
The data are collected from police departments via the Uniform Crime Report (UCR). Most police departments participate in the UCR’s Summary Reporting System (SRS), which reports information about aggregate numbers of different crimes. A select number of states participate in the more detailed and incident-level collection system known as the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). More information regarding the differences between the SRS and NIBRS are discussed in a prior article. Unfortunately at this time, California is not considered a NIBRS-compliant state, so there are no NIBRS data available from California. However, there are some more detailed statistics available for the state through various police departments’ websites (e.g., Los Angeles, San Francisco), and state-level data can be accessed through California’s Open Data Portal, including information on violent crime rates.
In 2020, a total of 15,897 agencies submitted data to the UCR’s SRS system, and 9,991 agencies submitted data to the NIBRS. Currently, the agencies submitting NIBRS data comprise approximately 52% of the agencies that submitted data to SRS, and thus, the NIBRS data are not as comprehensive as the SRS. Thus, the SRS data are typically used to generate Crime in the United States annual reports. Likewise, the SRS data were used to generate the preliminary 2020 crime statistics discussed above.
It is important to note that the FBI cautions against ranking of cities and comparing crime data across jurisdictions, even when accounting for population coverage. Unfortunately, these rough rankings would not provide insight into the numerous variables that affect crime in a particular locality, state, or region. As a result, the ranking of cities and/or counties based on SRS data would lead to simplistic and misleading analyses. Valid assessments can be conducted using UCR data if coupled with careful analysis of the unique conditions present in each law enforcement jurisdiction. In its current state, the data discussed above is best used to generate aggregate-level assessments, i.e., a “big picture look” of overall crime in the United States.
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