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DeSantis’ Florida crime claims based on incomplete data, records show

Only 8% of police departments in Florida submitted data to the federal crime database in 2022, with data from more than 500 agencies missing in the state.
 
Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a 2021 news conference at the Polk County Sheriff's Office. While he has consistently said that Florida's crime rate has dropped faster than the national average, records show Florida doesn't have complete data from its law enforcement agencies that would provide an accurate snapshot of crime.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is seen during a 2021 news conference at the Polk County Sheriff's Office. While he has consistently said that Florida's crime rate has dropped faster than the national average, records show Florida doesn't have complete data from its law enforcement agencies that would provide an accurate snapshot of crime.
Published July 5, 2023|Updated July 6, 2023

When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his bid for the presidency on Twitter Spaces last month, he touted Florida’s low crime rate as a proud accomplishment.

“Claiming that Florida is unsafe is a total farce,” DeSantis said. “I mean, are you kidding me? You look at cities around this country, they are awash in crime. In Florida, our crime rate is at a 50-year low.”

But his statement rests on patchy, incomplete crime data. About half of the agencies that police more than 40% of the state’s population are missing from figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) used for a state-wide estimation.

Participation in national data collection is even lower. In Florida, only 49 agencies, representing less than 8% of police departments, were included in an FBI federal database last year, according to a Marshall Project analysis. This means more than 500 police departments in Florida — including many of the largest agencies, like the Miami Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department — are missing from the national context. Florida’s participation rate is the lowest of any state in the country.

Experts said Florida’s low participation means it’s nearly impossible to compare Florida’s crime rate to other states, or to compare Florida’s current crime statistics with data from past years. “In order to talk accurately about a problem, we need to be able to define the problem correctly,” said Brendan Lantz, a criminology professor at Florida State University. “And we simply cannot do that with the existing data in Florida.”

A spokesperson from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it had to create estimates because police agencies reported data through two systems. The department expects to use estimations for the next few years as Florida transitions out of the old data system.

“(D)ata estimation was used to more accurately represent crime volumes and rates compared to previous years under the fully summary-based system,” a spokesperson responded in an email. “This estimation methodology was similar to the process the FBI uses to estimate national crime figures.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not comment further on questions about the accuracy of its crime data estimation. A spokesperson for the governor deferred crime data-related questions to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and did not respond to other written questions.

Florida’s data gap was partially a result of the FBI’s recent decision to modernize how it collects crime data in the country. Many law enforcement agencies were stuck in the transition from the old crime data collection system — the Summary Reporting System — to the newer National Incident-Based Reporting System. In previous years, nearly every police agency in Florida submitted their crime data to the state. To fill in the data gap, the state agency said they had to rely on estimation methods to evaluate crime rates for agencies that didn’t submit their data in 2021.

The crime data gap creates a vacuum of facts across the state and the nation, and gives politicians the space to say whatever they want about crime, said Jeff Asher, a criminologist and co-founder of AH Datalytics.

“People are already crime data illiterate, for the most part,” said Asher. “It makes it much more difficult to say, with certainty, what is happening both on a national level and also on the state level.”

Putting the crime data quality issue aside, DeSantis’ assertions about Florida’s declining crime rates should not be a surprise to the public, according to Asher. “‘Crime is at a 50-year low’ should sort of be, ‘No duh,’” he said. “Crime is falling. It’s not that big of a deal.” Both property crime and violent crimes have been on the decline nationally, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a Justice Department program that surveys 150,000 households about crimes that happened to them.

In general, Florida’s crime trends align with the national one. While experts say Florida’s crime data cannot be compared with data from past years, DeSantis is right that the state’s overall crime rate was on a downward trend before 2021. As murders spiked in cities like New York and Chicago during the pandemic, Miami and Orlando also saw increases in murders.

While the FBI’s new crime data system will eventually enable criminologists and policymakers to analyze crime trends in greater detail, Florida’s low participation at both the national and state level makes it an outlier. States like California that have been slow with the transition to the new system have reached over 50% adoption.

Many law enforcement agencies in Florida said they are in the process of transitioning their data management system, though the process is usually complicated and can take years.

For example, a spokesperson from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said the department had already started submitting crime data to the state through the new data system, but stopped when staff noticed errors in the state dashboard. The department’s numbers on the dashboard were consistently higher than what the county submitted, the spokesperson said, and the sheriff’s office is planning to resume data submission once the state fixes the mistakes. Until that resumption, it’s difficult determining if actual crime is rising or dropping.

At the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the state’s third-largest law enforcement agency, a spokesperson said a yearslong process of switching its crime record management system is almost complete, and the new system will be online by the fall. A spokesperson from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said the agency is currently submitting data through the old system, and working on using the new system “in the future.”

It’s not just crime data. In Florida, current and former public officials pointed to examples where the DeSantis administration altered or used data for political gains.

Recently, the Tampa Bay Times reported that DeSantis’ choice for Florida surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, omitted key data from a state analysis to support his claims against COVID-19 vaccination.

The Marshall Project’s senior data reporter Anna Flagg and Dow Jones News fellow Jasmyne Ricard contributed reporting.

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.