A Long Time Coming: The FBI’s Goal of Pushing Uniform Crime Reporting into the 21st Century

cameraThe Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently announced that the National Incident Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, would become the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) standard by January 1, 2021. In a recent memo to UCR program managers, FBI Director James Comey expressed the agency’s desire to transition from the outdated Summary Reporting System (SRS) to NIBRS. Comey stated that NIBRS would provide “faster access to more robust data” and “help law enforcement officials and municipal leaders better allocate resources.” In order to understand this change, a very brief history of crime data is needed.

Nearly eight decades ago, crime statistics evolved out of necessity. The Great Depression, Prohibition, and the automobile combined to increase crime rates across the country. In order to counter these trends, UCRs were developed to gather and publish data for law enforcement administration, operation, and management around the country. The FBI took over the UCR process in its infancy and established the summary reporting system (SRS). SRS broadly classified crimes into a few small categories with one offense per incident. The process was effective and remained unchanged for 60 years.

Around the time of Reagan, the volume, diversity, and complexity of crime had increased to the point that a new system was needed. In 1989, NIBRS was implemented to handle the expansive influx of information. NIBRS collects data about victims, offenders, property, and arrests. NIBRS provides for 52 offense classifications, with up to 10 offenses per incident. This provides a more comprehensive view of crime in the United States with greater flexibility in the compiling of data. But being voluntary, participation in NIBRS around the country has progressed slowly since its inception.

The slow progression has caused the FBI to maintain both the SRS and NIBRS. Comey, whose restlessness was demonstrated in the closing weeks of the election, is seeking to close out the SRS with the hopes of positive results in statistical reliability, accuracy, accessibility, and timeliness. In association with this goal, the FBI will conduct a NIBRS modernization study to “assess the current law enforcement agencies practices and evaluate a possible updating of NIBRS”. The FBI will also provide educational opportunities and technical assistance to aid agencies with their transition.