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Florida crime is down, report says, but the full picture is muddled

Experts say the report that shows crime is down to a 50-year low comes with caveats because of an ongoing switch to a new methodology to track crime.
Crime scene tape is tied to a St. Petersburg police vehicle at the scene of a deadly shooting in February 2021. Florida’s crime rate fell to a 50-year low in 2021, state officials announced this week along with the release of a report showing decreases in both violent crime and property crime. But experts say the report comes with big caveats.
Crime scene tape is tied to a St. Petersburg police vehicle at the scene of a deadly shooting in February 2021. Florida’s crime rate fell to a 50-year low in 2021, state officials announced this week along with the release of a report showing decreases in both violent crime and property crime. But experts say the report comes with big caveats. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2022|Updated Dec. 2, 2022

Crime in Florida fell to a 50-year low in 2021, state officials announced this week along with the release of a report showing decreases in both violent crime and property crime.

But experts say the report comes with big caveats amid a muddled, incomplete picture as law enforcement agencies in Florida and across the United States shift to a new system to tally crime.

Florida’s “total crime volume” dropped 8.3% last year compared to 2020, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s annual Uniform Crime Report released late Wednesday. The report shows the violent crime rate dropped 4.3% and the property crime dropped by 10.7%.

The department cited 38,524 fewer so-called “index crimes” in 2021 compared to the previous year. There are seven index crimes broken up as violent crimes (murder, sexual offenses, robbery and aggravated assault) and property crimes (burglary, larceny and motor vehicle-related theft).

But the report was released as many of Florida’s law enforcement agencies are transitioning to a new methodology created by the FBI to gather crime statistics. Some Florida agencies submitted data using the old methodology, some used the new methodology and some submitted data using both. The differences in the two methodologies make year-over-year comparisons problematic, and while researchers say the new system will in the long term be an improvement, the transition from one to another has in the meantime created blind spots in the data.

The state report released this week is based on the old methodology, called the Summary Reporting System, which the FBI had used since 1971. It tracked “monthly counts of the number of crimes known to law enforcement.” But the system only counted the most serious offense in an incident, applying a “hierarchy rule” to determine which offenses were more serious than others. For example, if someone was robbed and then murdered, the methodology only counted the murder. The system also focused on a limited number of types of crime.

The new system is called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS (in Florida, it’s known as FIBRS.) It collects 56 more offense categories than summary-based reporting, including more detailed information on victims, offenders, arrestees and property. It also does away with the hierarchy rule.

Of Florida’s 404 law enforcement agencies, 239 agencies covering 57.5% of the state’s population submitted 2021 data using the old system, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The department combined that data into what it called a “statewide aggregate” that covered Florida’s entire population and compared that to 2020′s annual figures to come up with statewide crime trends for 2021, the department said in a news release.

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Given the relatively low number of agencies included in the state report, “I would say these are provisional data and should be treated with some caution,” said Richard B. Rosenfeld, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In Pinellas, the overall crime rate dropped by about 0.3%, according to the state report. In Pasco, the rated dropped 7%.

Overall 2021 crime rate estimates for other Florida counties, including Hillsborough, were not available because data sample sizes were too small, the report notes.

The reported statewide drops in violent crime and property crime in Florida are broadly in line with what the FBI reported nationally based on estimates using the new methodology, according to Rosenfeld and Ames Grawert, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

But the national participation rate using the new methodology was also relatively low, so the FBI had to create its own estimates for crime rates that come with significant margins of error, Grawert said.

“So, attempting to compare Florida against the national benchmarks requires some care because you’re dealing with FBI estimates that are themselves very, very, very uncertain,” Grawert said.

The FBI stopped accepting data using the old methodology as of Jan. 1, 2021. Nationally, law enforcement agencies covering just more than half of the population reported a full year’s worth of data to the FBI in 2021. By comparison, the FBI’s previous years’ reports have been based on data from agencies covering upwards of 95% of the population.

In Florida, 29 law enforcement agencies have transitioned to the new incident-based system and at least 140 are in the process of transitioning, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said.

The Tampa Police Department is among the Tampa Bay agencies that have made the transition. Others in the region, including the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, are listed by the state as in process. The St. Petersburg Police Department and Clearwater Police Department have previously told the Tampa Bay Times they also were shifting to the new system.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it plans to begin releasing incident-based data next month and quarterly reports starting in February.

FBI officials have said the low participation rate by law enforcement agencies is expected to increase as more agencies make the switch.

The transition and resulting muddled statistical picture come on the heels of a 2020 nationwide increase in crime, including a spike in violent offenses such as murder, that bucked a decadeslong downward trend.

“It’s a very unfortunate accident that it happens to fall at a time when people are rightly concerned about public safety and makes it really hard to draw conclusions that are really, really important to policymakers,” Grawert said.

But Grawert said the quality of data is expected to improve as more agencies make the transition, and the more robust methodology will provide a more detailed picture of crime trends.

“That will be a significant benefit to researchers who study the criminal justice system, and to policymakers and journalists and the public who rely on good research,” Grawert said.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct name for Richard B. Rosenfeld.