Who’s Watching the Nation’s Crime Data?

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Photo by DanGutierrez via Flickr

The Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) performed an important public service when it disseminated semiannual data on violent crimes committed in the nation’s big cities.

But the MCCA board recently decided to discontinue providing the data for its member cities, evidently because some police chiefs were concerned that the data were being used improperly.

That decision is unfortunate. Researchers and the public need timely data that can be used to dispel myths and misunderstandings about violent crime levels and trends across the country.

Established in 1949, the MCCA is composed of the chiefs and sheriffs representing 69 large U.S. cities and nine Canadian cities. It takes positions on criminal justice and law enforcement issues and, for a time, issued timely reports on violent crime in its member cities.

Those reports were invaluable during 2015 and 2016, when homicide rates escalated abruptly in many big cities—or so it seemed.

No one was certain what was happening. The nation’s “official” crime data, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), were of little help because the data are disseminated long after they are collected. During the fall of 2015, when news reports began to warn that homicide rates were rising in some cities, the most recent yearly UCR data available to check the claims did not extend beyond 2014.

Meanwhile, other anecdotal reports countered the claims of a crime increase by focusing on cities where crime rates had not risen. You could pick a crime report to suit your political or ideological interests, as many commentators and public officials, including  President Trump, did.

It turns out that homicide rates were rising in most big cities.

That became apparent when the MCCA released semiannual and annual crime data for its member cities, shortly after the homicide rise began. Those data were used in a report released by the National Institute of Justice in 2016 on the homicide increase. Had the MCCA not filled the data void, the evidence-free debate over the claims of escalating crime rates likely would have continued, at least until the 2015 UCR crime data were finally released.

The MCCA crime data and the UCR data come from the same place, local law enforcement agencies. Local agencies compile the data and send it on, with few exceptions, to their state UCR program, where the data are checked for accuracy and aggregated.

The state agencies then send the data to the FBI, where they are rechecked and finally released to the public in the annual report Crime in the United States. The MCCA made it clear that their crime reports were preliminary and subject to revision. But, just as is true of economic indicators, preliminary data are better than no data at all.

In fact, the MCCA data proved to be quite accurate, as was eventually confirmed by the UCR figures for the same cities.

It is far from obvious why the FBI’s crime data are released so long after the collection year or why they are not disseminated on a quarterly or semiannual basis. That was the practice during the 1930s, when the local crime data were compiled in pen-and-ink or on manual typewriters and sent by the post office to Washington.

As the FBI moves to replace the UCR with the National Incident Based Reporting System, it is unlikely that the schedule for releasing the data will improve anytime soon.

That’s why it is so important that the MCCA revive its timely crime reports for the big cities. Other organizations, such as the Police Foundation or the Police Executive Research Forum, could perform this function, but none is better positioned than the MCCA to obtain and release the data rapidly, reliably, and consistently.

What about the concerns of some chiefs that their crime data might be misused or viewed out of proper context?

Those concerns are understandable and apply, of course, to all data on important public issues. But the costs to public understanding and public policy are far outweighed by the benefits of getting crime data into the hands of users as quickly as possible.

Without comprehensive and representative crime data, we are left with unreliable anecdotes that can be cherry-picked to support almost any view of crime and its causes and consequences, no matter how misguided.

Besides, the MCCA member departments dutifully send their crime data to the UCR, so the issue is not whether the data might be misused, but how soon. The periodic and timely release of representative crime data is the best way to raise the level of public debate and inform policy responses regarding abrupt changes in crime rates that are not captured by any other authoritative source.

Richard Rosenfeld

Richard Rosenfeld

The days when crime data were considered the personal property of the local police chief are long gone. Crime data are an indispensible public good for policy-relevant research on crime and justice.

One of the major purposes of the MCCA is to “encourage and sponsor research.” Nothing would support this purpose better than restoring the MCCA crime reports.

Richard Rosenfeld, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He welcomes comments from readers.

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