Posted on March 18, 2021

Murder Rate Remains Elevated as New Crime Reporting System Begins

Jeff Asher, New York Times, March 16, 2021

The big increase in the murder rate in the United States in 2020 has carried over to 2021.

A sample of 37 cities with data available for the first three months of this year shows murder up 18 percent relative to the same period last year.

In the midst of a volatile period in crime, keeping track of trends has become especially important so that the police and local officials can tailor prevention policies.

But as it happens, this year’s national crime release will be the last of its kind as the F.B.I. transitions to a crime reporting system that will affect the public’s ability to evaluate trends locally and nationally.

On Monday, the F.B.I. released preliminary statistics showing a major increase in murder last year, with a 25 percent rise in agencies that reported quarterly data. The F.B.I. did not receive data from several cities with known big increases in murder like New York, Chicago and New Orleans, but cities of all sizes reported increases of greater than 20 percent.

A 25 percent increase in murder in 2020 would mean the United States surpassed 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995. {snip}


The Uniform Crime Report was begun in 1929 to serve as the nation’s repository of crime data. On Jan. 1, it made arguably its biggest change in its century of existence. The eventual result should be more detailed information about crime, but it will probably come at the price of less confidence in reported crime figures over the next few years.

The F.B.I. has two basic national crime data collection systems that it relies on to create estimates of local and national trends. One is the Summary Reporting System (S.R.S.), which has two main problems.

First, agencies use a “hierarchy rule,” meaning they count only the most serious offense in an incident. If a burglar assaults a homeowner, the assault is counted, while the burglary is not. Or if a murder takes place during a robbery, only the murder is recorded. Second, there are only seven main categories of national crime data (arson is so underreported that the F.B.I. does not estimate national figures), so data on crimes like vandalism, fraud and kidnapping is not collected.

To address these deficiencies, on Jan. 1 the F.B.I. stopped collecting data via the S.R.S. and switched to the National Incident Based Response System (NIBRS).

This newer system, started in 1988, collects data on a much wider array of offenses, though this data was not used until now for the Uniform Crime Report. NIBRS does away with the hierarchy rule; agencies can report on up to 10 different offenses in a single episode.


Although phasing out S.R.S. will have benefits, the switch-over presents short-term challenges. For a start, it isn’t known how many agencies will actually report crime data in 2021 using the newer system.


Another reason it will be hard to compare crime statistics in 2021 with previous years is that eliminating the hierarchy rule will undoubtedly lead to an increase in the number of crimes reported.

This shouldn’t have much effect on the number of murders reported each year, because murder sits atop the hierarchy. But there may be increases in other types of offenses that could create some misleading headlines.