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A Picture of U.S. Crime

​“We need more transparency and accountability in law enforcement. We also need better, more informed conversations about crime and policing in this country,” ​U.S. FBI Director James Comey said when his agency issued its most recent national crime statistics late last year.

And so, the FBI is moving forward on two major initiatives toward this goal. The agency has started collecting information for its first nationwide use-of-force database. This will be an online database containing information on interactions—both nonfatal and deadly—that U.S. law enforcement officers have with the public.   

Back in 2014, the U.S. Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), which required states and federal law enforcement agencies to report data to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) when civilians died during interactions with law enforcement. The DCRA also authorizes the U.S. attorney general to impose financial penalties on noncompliant states.

However, the DCRA did not require reporting for nonfatal interactions. In the absence of such a mandate, the FBI has been partnering with local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement to set up a system for national data collection about nonlethal incidents. Comey himself had repeatedly advocated for a more comprehensive use-of-force database, as he called the lack of national data on the use of force “embarrassing and ridiculous.” 

The second initiative is a change in the agency’s primary crime reporting system. For years, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program has played this role, but five years down the road, the agency plans to replace it with the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

Although the UCR system keeps track of the number of homicides, armed robberies, aggravated assaults, and other crimes, agency officials say it does not go far enough in collecting information that could give indications of why crimes occur, and what can be done to prevent them. 

In contrast to the UCR, the NIBRS offers a fuller picture of incidents of crime, with information about what exactly transpired, demographic information about the people involved, the relationship between the perpetrators and victims, and specific location and time coordinates. 

But as of a few months ago, only roughly a third of law enforcement agencies were reporting into NIBRIS. The FBI’s goal is to have all enforcement agencies doing so by 2021, if not sooner. To help lead the way, the FBI has started to publish more data from its field offices about such offenses as human trafficking, hate crimes, and cyber intrusions.

“Information that is accurate, reliable, complete, and timely will help all of us learn where we have problems and how to get better,” Comey said. ​ ​