Is Crime Getting Better or Worse? We Don't Really Know.

The FBI changed the way it compiles data, and reporting law-enforcement agencies have yet to catch up.


Philadelphia residents are bemoaning the closure of two iconic WaWa convenience stores, largely as a result of "continued safety and security challenges," according to the Pennsylvania company. Illustrating those concerns is dramatic security video footage of roughly 100 teens ransacking a store last month, and that was just one recent incident.

Philadelphians are far from alone in their concerns; after decades of improvement, crime has reemerged as an issue amidst a widespread sense of increasing danger. But there's a catch: because of changes in methodology, crime statistics are less reliable than in the past. That leaves us working from limited information.

"Inflation, crime, and immigration are the top self-stated voter issues heading into the midterms," according to a Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll released last week. Inflation ranked as "very important" with 74 percent of respondents, 68 percent said the same of crime, followed by immigration at 59 percent.

Most polls produce similar results, with inflation and the economy as the top concerns, and crime weighing heavily on voters' minds. But, in some places, crime has pushed into the lead.

"Asked to choose the most urgent issue facing New York State today, crime (28 percent) ranks first among likely voters followed by inflation (20 percent) and protecting democracy (14 percent)," the Quinnipiac Poll found last week.

Well beyond the looting of urban convenience stores, crime obviously worries Americans. The data seems to support those fears.

"The FBI's crime statistics for 2021 confirm that violent crime continued to be a major issue in the United States, remaining at or near the 2020 level which saw a 5.6 percent increase compared to 2019," the FBI reported earlier this month. "Murder and non-negligent manslaughter recorded a nationwide increase of 29.4 percent in 2020. … Overall, the analysis shows violent and property crime remained consistent between 2020 and 2021."

Rising crime is always a concern, and it's especially so when it reverses expectations. As recently as September 2019, the FBI boasted of declining violent and property crime, which steadily fell for decades.

"Both the FBI and BJS data show dramatic declines in U.S. violent and property crime rates since the early 1990s, when crime spiked across much of the nation," Pew Research noted in 2020.

Why the unfortunate turnaround? Social scientists will likely be building careers on that question. It's worth pointing out that high unemployment and stagnant economic activity of the sort we saw with the COVID-19 lockdowns tend to lead to social unrest. So do the aftermaths of pandemics in general. It's difficult to build peaceful, free, and prosperous societies, but not so hard to break them.

But, granting that things have changed for the worse, how worried should we be about the crime we see around us? There's the rub; despite those specific-sounding FBI numbers, we don't really know the current crime rate. The feds recently changed the way they compile data, and reporting law-enforcement agencies have yet to catch up.

"In 2021, the FBI retired its nearly century-old national crime data collection program, the Summary Reporting System used by the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program," Weihua Li of The Marshall Project, which specializes in journalism about criminal-justice issues, reported earlier this year. "The agency switched to a new system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which gathers more specific information on each incident."

"Unfortunately, despite the advantages of the newer National Incident Based Reporting System, many state and local law enforcement agencies have yet to make the switch," the Brennan Center's Ames Grawert and Noah Kim commented this month. "Law enforcement agencies covering just over half of the population reported a full year's worth of data to the FBI in 2021. By comparison, the FBI's recent reports have been based on data from agencies covering upwards of 95 percent of the population."

"The gap includes the nation's two largest cities by population, New York City and Los Angeles, as well as most agencies in five of the six most populous states: California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida," added Li.

The omitted agencies and jurisdictions plan to eventually catch up with the new reporting system. But those are major oversights when you're trying to figure out what's going on in large swathes of the United States. Yes, if the neighborhood outside your front door transforms from a pleasant oasis to a perilous hellscape (or the reverse), you've probably noticed. But if you're trying to get a grasp on what's really happening across the country, you're stuck working from limited information. And it's too easy to misinterpret what you see.

"Throughout the past two decades, the majority of Americans have reported that crime trends are worsening (Swift 2016), despite the fact that crime rates in a variety of contexts have been decreasing," researchers noted in a 2019 paper in Deviant Behavior.

Those researchers tested the common assumption that scary headlines and TV news stories were responsible for perceptions of rising crime when the country was actually getting safer and couldn't find a connection. When it comes to whodunnit, maybe it wasn't the media, after all. But that didn't change the fact of people's mistaken beliefs; it just means that they couldn't establish a cause. And that was at a time when crime statistics were fairly reliable.

There are other sources of crime data aside from the FBI, point out the Brennan Center's Grawert and Kim. But those sources, public and private, don't entirely agree with each other. Some show increases in homicides and violent crime in 2021, though at a slower pace than in 2020; others show a decline. These sources also aren't as well-known as the FBI data which, despite the flaws of the old methodology, gave us comparable information year after year.

That leaves us making judgments based on reports about convenience stores getting looted in major cities, and other high-profile news stories. But, while crime increased with the disruptions of 2020, those stories don't give us a good handle on whether conditions are still deteriorating or getting better. That makes it difficult to make plans, whether that involves personal decisions about where to move for a better life or policy judgments about things like criminal justice reform.

So, is crime getting better or worse? You can make an educated judgment about your own community. But on a larger scale, like most everything else right now, it will be a while before we sort out the mess.