National Crime Statistics Exchange (NCS-X): Building on NIBRS for More Accurate National Crime Estimates
Howard N. Snyder, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Law Enforcement, Prosecution, Courts, Recidivism and Special Projects, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice
The work of collecting crime statistics on a national basis in the United States was initiated on January 1, 1930, by the Committee on Uniform Crime Reports of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). It had taken nearly 60 years to arrive at that point. As far back as 1871, the National Police Association had called for a national collection of crime statistics. In September 1930, nine months after it began, the work to produce uniform crime reports was assumed by the Bureau of Investigation of the U.S. Department of Justice. (The name was not changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935.) The forms for tallying and compiling these data were furnished monthly by the Bureau, along with return envelopes requiring no postage. These forms, and all correspondence dealing with criminal statistics work, were to be addressed directly to J. Edgar Hoover to emphasize the importance of this activity. It is interesting to note that the forms used today by the FBI's traditional Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) to document crime patterns in the United States in the 21st century look remarkably similar to those sent to Hoover over 80 years ago.
By the 1980s criticisms of the UCR program were commonly heard from law enforcement agencies, researchers, government policy makers, and the media. Many thought that the system needed to be expanded to cover a wider range of offense types and provide more detailed information on the nature of criminal incidents. At the same time, data processing capabilities of state programs and local law enforcement agencies had begun to outpace what some labeled the "antiquated" methods of the UCR program. Based on such criticism and the rapidly changing data processing environment, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation formed a joint task force to determine what, if any, changes should be made to the existing UCR program. The result of this work was a report published in 1985 entitled Blueprint for the Future of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/bjs/98348.pdf), which essentially laid out the framework for what has come to be known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System (or NIBRS).
Over 30 years later NIBRS has not replaced the aggregate crime counts found in the forms sent to Hoover as our source of national crime statistics. Essentially, the Nation depends on eight numbers (the Index Crimes) trended annually to monitor the volume and characteristics of crimes known to law enforcement agencies. While hundreds of millions of dollars and an unknown number of hours have been expended to enable the NIBRS to replace traditional UCR data, NIBRS coverage still will not support the production of national statistics.
Currently about 5,000 of the nearly 20,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States report NIBRS data to the FBI. These data cannot be used to support national statistics because there is no way to guarantee that data from the 5,000 can be manipulated to represent the 20,000. Given the current situation, there are two paths that NIBRS could take to become nationally representative. One is the path to complete reporting (i.e., waiting until nearly all 20,000 agencies are reporting NIBRS data to the FBI). Based on experience, the end of this path is many decades into the future. The second path uses a sampling design to provide sufficient NIBRS data to produce a statistically sound estimate of crime in the 15,000 agencies currently not reporting NIBRS data. Given the quality of existing record management systems, if the sampled agencies would agree to participate, the sampling design could be implemented within a few years. It should be noted that the 1985 report proposed such a sampling approach for the development of NIBRS but those recommendations were not implemented.
In 2012, BJS launched a new statistical initiative called the National Crime Statistics Exchange (NCS-X). The primary goal of this program is to develop a statistical system that can generate detailed national estimates of the volume and characteristics of crimes known to law enforcement. After some discussion BJS decided that it did not need to create a new statistical system to achieve this goal, but could build on the strong foundation laid by NIBRS. BJS analyzed the current status of NIBRS reporting and determined that data collected from 400 of the 15,000 non-NIBRS agencies would be sufficient to generate reasonable estimates of crime for all 15,000 agencies. By combining these estimates with the reported NIBRS data from the 5,000 current reporters, national estimates of crime with the detail found in NIBRS could be produced. This is an achievable goal in a reasonable time period, and this path to national crime statistics based on NIBRS data has become the primary objective of NCS-X.
NCS-X is a collaborative undertaking, supported by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other Department of Justice agencies. To reach its goal, NCS-X will actively work with the selected 400 law enforcement agencies to begin their reporting of NIBRS data and with their state UCR programs that will be receiving this increased flow of NIBRS data. NCS-X is designed to help local agencies implement efficient and minimally burdensome processes to collect and extract incident-based data from their existing records management systems. When necessary, NCS-X will provide resources to enable local agencies to contribute to NIBRS. These resources may include funding, training, technical support, or other customized incentives, such as increased operational and analytic capabilities. In addition, NCS-X will provide funding and technical assistance to state UCR programs to enable them to report the growing volume of NIBRS data to the FBI.
A team of organizations-including RTI International, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute (IJIS), and the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics (SEARCH)-is responsible for developing the implementation plans for NCS-X. This includes coordinating efforts with local law enforcement, state reporting programs, and the software industry. An NCS-X Executive Steering Committee will review possible design and implementation options to ensure the maximum benefit to both participants and key stakeholders.
In the near future NCS-X will be reaching out to the 400 selected law enforcement agencies and the state UCR programs to explain the program, to assess the capabilities of local record management systems, and to learn of the barriers to NIBRS reporting that have been in place and determine what is needed to overcome these barriers. Through NCS-X, BJS is committed to building a national statistical system that generates detailed estimates of the volume and characteristics of crimes known to law enforcement. With its partners, BJS will raise the funds needed to accomplish this goal. After more than 30 years of working to make NIBRS a national information resource, BJS is aware of the problems NCS-X faces. NCS-X needs guidance from, and the active support of, the law enforcement community to ensure its success. BJS hopes that when contacted, the local law enforcement agencies and the state UCR programs will provide this guidance openly and completely.
The United States needs a better source of crime statistics based on data from law enforcement than it currently has to address the problems of the 21st century. Such information could flow from NIBRS if the system were made nationally representative through NCS-X. The wide-ranging value of such a national resource is obvious and it should be the criminal justice community's goal to make it a reality in the near future.