ST. LOUIS — When people talk about how the St. Louis region is doing, how the city’s crime statistics compare to other cities often leads the conversation.
The I-Team has learned flaws in the way crime data is collected across the country are making it impossible to know where St. Louis truly stands.
Only 52% of police departments across the country submitted complete crime statistics in 2021, and the first three quarters of 2022 are not looking much better, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“What that means is that the most basic question we can ask about any recent dissemination of crime data is this did crime go up or down?” Rosenfeld asked. “The FBI is cautioning us against answering that question with these data.”
St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments — the two largest in our area — are among the 52% of departments that submitted data, according to the FBI.
Cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Francisco are not.
“What we can’t do without a reliable set of comparisons is figure out where we are in relation to other places,” Rosenfeld said.
The country shifted to a new crime data collection system in 2021.
Rosenfeld said that was a good decision because it would give much more data on many more offenses beyond just felony offenses and arrests police departments submit. The new system includes age, race and sex of victims as well as circumstances of the crimes. The old system also dated to the 1930s, Rosenfeld said.
But the transition sent crime data reporting from police departments plummeting, Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld’s analysis found only 62% of law enforcement agencies, covering about 65% of the country’s population, had switched to the new system by the FBI’s deadline of Jan. 1, 2022. In addition, other agencies submitted only a portion of the year.
About 52% submitted data for all 12 months of 2021, he said.
He said some states, including California, Pennsylvania and Florida had very few departments send in data at all, so statewide comparisons in those areas are flawed.
As for the agencies that submitted partial or no data, the FBI estimated the crime totals for those communities based on historical data and comparisons with agencies of similar size and composition.
But it didn’t have to be that way, he said.
The FBI announced in 2015 it would be changing to a new system and gave out more than $120 million to help agencies with the transition, he said.
“Some agencies were able to transition and submit 12 months-worth of data, so I'm at a loss to know why New York, why L.A., San Francisco, Phoenix and other places weren't able to make the transition,” Rosenfeld said. “There were technical challenges, to be sure, but they were overcome by many agencies.”
Crime statistics have always had shortcomings, as not every police department interprets the way the FBI counts crime the same way and others do not report at all.
One set of data most commonly used to compare cities is homicide totals.
St. Louis ended 2022 with 198 homicides, two fewer than the 2021 total.
The remainder of the year’s other crime numbers will be done from the month of December in the coming weeks, according to the police department.
With major cities not submitting their crime data to the FBI, that makes it impossible to know how St. Louis’ murder rate stands up to others on a per capita basis, Rosenfeld said.
So, the best way to analyze whether the city’s homicide rate is high is from a historical perspective; comparing St. Louis against St. Louis year-over-year.
Rosenfeld said an act of Congress is needed to improve the situation.
“The FBI crime data constitutes our major crime reporting and it's run like a charity,” he said. “It's run based on the voluntary contributions of data from local law enforcement agencies. That would be unthinkable if we were talking about health statistics, if we're talking about economic statistics, even educational statistics.”
Rosenfeld said he thinks the legislature should require police departments to submit crime data in a timely fashion to the FBI.
“So, the nation has a reasonably accurate picture of where we are with respect to crime,” he said.
Without accurate statistics, holding politicians accountable also becomes a problem, he said.
“Crime looms as a major issue in elections, and what we will not have is our nation's official crime statistics to be used in any kind of reliable way to evaluate the claims and positions of candidates and I think that's a very serious problem,” Rosenfeld said.
Especially when people compare St. Louis to other major cities, he also said.
To find out what your police department reported, click here to view data that is available through the FBI.