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17 Oct, 2022 14:03

No one knows what’s going on with the most important US election issue

Crime is on the agenda in this year’s midterm elections – but incomplete reporting makes data easy to manipulate
No one knows what’s going on with the most important US election issue

One of the critical issues in the 2022 US midterm elections is crime. Last week, a Politico-Morning Consult poll found that 77% of respondents believe violent crime is a significant problem countrywide. However, 17% see it as a minor problem and only 2% say it’s not a problem. 

A key reason that most people agree on crime could have to do with what is portrayed in the media. Corporate media could be selectively showing scare stories and cherry-picking anecdotes to raise attention to crime, thus ensuring police budgets remain high in the wake of calls to ‘defund the police’. Or it could just be from people’s lived experiences. After all, on my last trip to the States, I was minutes away from being caught in a shooting in just my first several days. 

One key issue undermines all this: According to 2021 FBI statistics, violent crime fell by 1% between 2020 and 2021. Nonetheless, homicides increased by 4.3% compared to a 29.4% jump in 2020 – but robberies decreased by 8.9%, which the FBI said was the main reason violent crime overall reduced. 

But you may have noticed one crucial slip-up with this data, namely that it’s incomplete. As the FBI Crime Data Explorer states, “the FBI estimated crime statistics for the nation are based on data received from 11,794 of 18,806 law enforcement agencies in the year.” This means that the data does not take into account New York City and Los Angeles. 

FBI figures are how the country understands crime, especially trends. Without reliable data, no one can really understand what’s happening, which opens the door for politicians and the media to exploit the data (or lack thereof) for their own benefit. The issue of crime then becomes totally divorced from reality and devolves into a petty political squabble.

First, a note on why this happened. It’s not because of some deep conspiracy meant to misinform the public. Rather, the agency implemented a long-planned switch from the old national crime data collection program, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, to the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). In theory, this should give more nuanced information about each incidence of crime – but many agencies, including the majority in five of the six most populous states, haven’t switched over yet.

When data collection pans out, we should have a lot more to work with. One of the main problems with the old data collection system is that it didn’t include key details, such as a crime’s time of day or the demographics of the victims. It also wasn’t updated for modern crimes, like cyberstalking, and omitted the less serious offenses committed alongside more serious offenses. For example, if someone was caught kidnapping and murdering an individual, then only the murder would be counted. 

The FBI had been aware of this issue since 1988 when the NIBRS was launched. Agencies were given the choice of how to report their crime, either with the old UCR or the new and improved NIBRS. But in 2015, the administration of President Barack Obama decided to abolish the outdated UCR by 2021 to synchronize the national data and give a more detailed picture of crime trends. That leads us to the problem we have today.

And it doesn’t look like the transition will happen cleanly anytime soon either. The FBI also recently published figures for the first quarter of this year and only 56% of agencies were able to successfully report. More than likely, crime won’t be accurately reported for several years, which will only compound the problem. It will be harder for anyone to fact-check assertions made by politicians and the media on crime. 

This will be especially troubling as the debate about changing policing as we know it continues in the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. The prevailing logic is that ‘more police equals less crime’, but this logic ignores what constitutes ‘crime’, given that a crime is defined by people in power, who determine where, when, and how to find such acts. 

It’s also reported by the police themselves, who have a vested self-interest in overreporting or underreporting crime depending on the political headwinds. Finally, laser-focusing on spikes in street crime – which might just be explained by the FBI’s data collection shift – belies the fact that some of the most harmful crimes, white collar and corporate crime, are woefully underreported and under-prosecuted. 

All told, the issue of crime is infinitely complex and any data set aimed at explaining intricate social phenomena will always fall short. But that won’t stop political actors from trying to do just that to prop up systems of power.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.