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How much crime really occurs? Don’t ask the feds.

ktsdesign/Shutterstock.com

The United States has no accounting of how much crime there really is nationwide because FBI statistics do not reflect cybercrimes and other offenses that have cropped up since reporting began in 1930. But that might change in 2013.

“Millions victimized by fraud and online crimes, but this is often not captured,” Justice Department officials tweeted during the first meeting in 82 years to figure out the best crime indicators. Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Burch microblogged the event Wednesday, posting comments from attendees such as the previous quote from a Major Cities Chiefs Association representative.

“We have no idea how much crime there really is,” program consultant Paul Wormeli, a former deputy administrator of Justice’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, said in an interview.  

The current -- and, most would agree, outdated -- taxonomy of offenses is the Uniform Crime Reporting system. Right now, the national statistics index is limited to violent crime, murder, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. This regime masks the extent to which drug trafficking, or gun trafficking for that matter, fuels other crimes, experts note. The possible correlations are a flash point in the current debates over legalizing drugs and controlling the border with Mexico.  

Next year, Justice officials expect to release an updated crime nomenclature and data mining technology to describe transgressions in meaningful contexts, such as the degree to which heroin plays a role in homicides.

The FBI in the late 1980s rolled out a more expansive incident reporting system that does convey telling patterns, such as the magnitude of crime against the elderly. But some towns refuse to enter data -- only about 28 percent of the U.S. population is reflected in the analyses. The reluctance to contribute is due to the time involved in reformatting local reports for entry and concerns that data will be misconstrued or misused, resulting in inaccurate comparisons, according to Wormeli’s research. Under the framework, law enforcement officials must categorize incidents involving multiple wrongdoings as multiple crimes, which could give the false impression of high community crime rates.

“Generally, a homicide, assault & burglary in one incident is only ‘counted’ as a homicide in natl stats,” Burch tweeted.

FBI officials told Nextgov that a new UCR program, scheduled to launch in spring 2013, will feature a less challenging data collection format and provide the public with faster access to the reports online. Recently, the FBI also agreed to consider other changes, including the addition of codes for gauging cybercrime, domestic violence, and incidents provoked by religious or ethnic biases. The cybercrime category could break down events into identity theft, computer invasions and digital stalking, officials added. In addition, a new crime scene location could appear: cyberspace.

If the FBI’s advisory board approves the updates during its June meeting, then the bureau will begin to incorporate the new attributes.

The goal of the meeting, which gathered top law enforcement officials like Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner Charles Ramsey, was not to discredit previous findings or the FBI’s assessments, participants stressed. Burch tweeted: "Our purpose is not to diminish the UCR -- it has admirably served for many yrs.”

Separately, the Bureau of Justice Statistics told Nextgov the agency is looking at how to grab relevant data from new sources. Those information streams might include police bulletins issued through Twitter; hospital visitor logs on patients suffering gunshot wounds; and school disciplinary actions taken against students.

Justice Statistics officials said enhanced crime accounting won’t necessarily be costly. Instead of creating new data systems, the federal government could gather the information as-is from organizations’ existing systems. Today, about 65 percent of police forces already use a standard records management system, according to Wormeli. Justice could draw out police records from particular jurisdictions and combine them with, for example, the school districts’ cyber bullying reports to derive a clearer picture of the trends that matter to communities.

With computers, which weren’t around 82 years ago, officials should be able to produce a monthly crime snapshot in the same way the government issues the monthly jobs report, Justice Statistics officials said. It’s not that the data isn’t out there; it’s that the data isn’t being collected from local jurisdictions, they added.

Next, the agency will review the recommendations from last week’s meeting and determine which elements might be feasible. In six months, the participants will regroup and start trying to extract all that data.

Burch tweeted a summary point from Ramsey: "Meetings like this shouldn't take place once every 80 or 90 years!"

(Image via ktsdesign/Shutterstock.com)

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