A committee of criminal justice experts today backed an overhaul of the nation’s flawed system of counting and analyzing crime numbers.
The call came in a long-awaited preliminary report from a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee that was asked to study modernizing U.S. crime data.
“This particular moment in time is uniquely pivotal for U.S. crime statistics,” the panel said, adding that it is “essential to recast the enterprise of crime data collection by constructing a rigorous modern classification of criminal offenses.”
The 15-member committee, which has been at work since 2014, is headed by criminologist Janet L. Lauritsen of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Crime-watchers long have expressed concerns that the primary vehicle for compiling crime data, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting program (UCR), dates from the 1930s. Since 1973, it has been complemented by the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), which estimates the millions of crimes that are not reported to authorities.
Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., nearly two years ago, critics that include FBI director James Comey have cited the lack of reliable national data on police killings of civilians.
Most recently, the lack of timely data was illustrated last Friday, when a police chiefs group issued its own survey reporting that homicides are rising sharply in many big cities.
The NAS panel proposed to use a new classification of crimes advocated by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. It “differs markedly” from the current U.S. system, the panel said, by omitting “aggravated assault” as a category, which the committee said has been ambiguous since it was first used nationally at the suggestion of the FBI in 1929.
Because it includes cases in which a gun or other lethal weapon is involved, it could “apply equally to a shooting that causes near-deadly or disabling injury as well as to a barroom confrontation where no physical harm is inflicted at all but a firearm is brandished,” the committee said.
As it is, some police departments are accused of downgrading aggravated assaults to “simple assaults” to make their cities appear to be less violent.
The committee noted that one result is that “the nation as a whole lacks reliable measures of shootings,” while “the public expects and demands that their local law enforcement officials know, understand, and address shootings on a daily basis.”
Aggravated assaults are one of four categories of violent crime, as the FBI defines it for the local police departments who report the information (the others are homicides, robberies and rapes). In 2014, nearly two thirds of the 1.16 million violent crimes reported were aggravated assaults.
The committee suggested new categories of crime, including several types of fraud and corruption, crimes against the environment or natural resources, and sexual exploitation of children. It also proposed to “broaden the concept of threatening or dangerous behavior” to create new categories for harassment and stalking that emphasize patterns of repeated behavior over a period of time. It would start a separate category of rape in cases when the victim is unable to communicate consent or non-consent.
For many years, the FBI has been urging state and local law enforcement agencies to convert its crime reporting programs to something called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which includes as many as several dozen aspects of a crime. Less than one-third of the U.S. population is now covered by agencies using NIBRS, however.
The NAS committee said it supports “full-scale adoption of incident-based crime reporting … that is sufficiently detailed to permit accurate classification and extensive disaggregation and analysis essential to achieving the kind of flexibility in crime statistics afforded by a modern crime classification.”
The FBI’s current system that lists totals for crime categories like homicides and robberies “is simply inadequate to provide information of the quality or the level of detail demanded by modern crime data users,” the panel said.
FBI Director Comey has said he would like the entire nation to be reporting crimes using the more-detailed NIBRS system by 2021.
The committee will issue a second report on how to implement its recommendations.
Adoption of the panel’s proposals likely will be up to the Justice Department in the next presidential administration, because the FBI and BJS are both components of DOJ. Congressional committees that fund the department will be consulted.
Other members of the panel are:
Daniel B. Bibel, retired director of crime reporting for the Massachusetts State Police; Jonathan P. Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University; Kim English of the Colorado Department of Public Safety; Robert M. Goerge of the University of Chicago; Nola M. Joyce, a retired official of the Philadelphia Police Department; David McDowall of the University at Albany, State University of New York;
Jennifer H. Madans of the National Center for Health Statistics; Michael D. Maltz of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Ohio State University; Michael C. Miller of the Coral Gables, Fl., Police Department; James J. Nolan, III of West Virginia University; Amy O’Hara of the U.S. Census Bureau; John V. Pepper of the University of Virginia; Alex R. Piquero of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Jeffrey L. Sedgwick of the Justice Research and Statistics Association.
The study director is Daniel L. Cork.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.