'We are not where we should be.' Experts weigh in on crime data systems across SoCal and the US

Our Safety Tracker gathers crime and safety information across SoCal. But some agencies have more up-to-date data than others.

ByGrace Manthey KABC logo
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
How crime data is collected across Southern California
Our new Neighborhood Safety Tracker gathers crime and safety information across Southern California. But how is all that data reported, and why do some agencies have more up-to-date data than others?

There's a consensus among experts when it comes to crime data: it's important.

"American people deserve nothing less" than "reliable data and evidence to inform crime policy decision making," said Alex Piquero, the director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"If we improve the data systems, we improve the information that then people use to make the kinds of decisions that they need," he said.

Click here to view our ABC7 Neighborhood Safety Tracker

There are multiple ways law enforcement agencies publish this type of data. Most departments release static reports online, usually in the form of PDFs. They often look at broad crime categories and summarize year-to-year changes.

But these reports often lag months or years after the crimes occur and may not provide a lot of flexibility to explore the data.

The Los Angeles Police Department is one of a handful of departments in Southern California that regularly publishes data to the city's open data portal on every crime that the department records. It allows users to "drill down" to more granular categories, LAPD Deputy Chief Kris Pitcher said.

"That's the department's commitment toward transparency; we want to make sure that everything that is recorded. All of the crimes, all of the issues, everything else is uploaded on a weekly basis so that the public gets an opportunity to see exactly what is going on within a community," Pitcher said.

The data includes information on victims, weapons and locations for each crime.

The city of Los Angeles page of ABC7's Neighborhood Safety Tracker is built using data from the data published by LAPD.

Of course, crime data is never perfect - even a disclaimer on the portal itself acknowledges there may be some inaccuracies, and there are a few safeguards in place to maintain privacy.

Pitcher said the department will go back years to update specific cases as they learn more, and the department has several checks in place by officers and detectives to ensure the data is as accurate as possible.

Piquero from the BJS said these types of open data portals, "help create the transparency that the people need and that people deserve."

Why don't all agencies publish crime data in an 'open data' format?

According to Pitcher, many local agencies and governments simply don't have the technology or resources to publish data this way.

"The larger agencies tend to have the technology that supports the ability to at least gather that data and ultimately post it," he said.

This technology can be expensive.

"Who's going to pay for the storage in the cloud? Who's going to input the data? Who's going to check the data?" Piquero said.

"There's vendors that you have to buy this stuff from, and you have to upkeep it. And so these things are expensive, but they're necessary," Piquero continued.

And LAPD is only one agency, covering only the city of Los Angeles.

The rest of Los Angeles County consists of independent cities and unincorporated areas.

Some of the cities have their own police departments and others rely on the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.

The unincorporated areas are also patrolled by the sheriff's department.

A drive on the 10 Freeway from Pomona to Santa Monica would take you through about 10 different law enforcement jurisdictions, including in and out of LAPD and sheriff's boundaries.

ANIMATION: Law enforcement jurisdictions in Los Angeles County

Other counties in ABC7's coverage area have similar setups.

"So to be able to get stats that clearly tell the picture of what's going on from one jurisdiction that on this side of the street to another jurisdiction on that side of the street, that has been a challenge for many, many years," said Jim McDonnell, former Los Angeles County sheriff and now the director of USC's Safe Communities Institute.

"You would think that everything is completely uniform and standardized. And we try and do that as best we can. But the reality is there are differences based on the priorities of the different cities," McDonnell said.

"We're just not there yet"

There's an important balance between this kind of real-time open data and official, federally standardized data, according to Piquero.

"We are now in a world where there's more open data. And that's good, until it's not good. And when it's not good is when it's has errors, or when people don't go back and update," he said.

Departments publish and present their open data in different ways. For example, some agencies have flags for when they update their data while others don't, according to Piquero.

"So, you get what you get," he said.

"And so that's always the tension between official federal statistics that are official and take time because of all of the various checks and then instantaneous real time data. There's a happy medium between both of those. And I don't see them as mutually exclusive," he continued.

In California, all agencies report data to the state Department of Justice. Those numbers are standardized and published months later.

On a federal level, Piquero said he wants to do more to modernize crime data.

"We are not where we should be as an American society," he said.

"I can get on [a] flight tracker...I can tell you where every plane is in the United States or the world right now. I can see what time it left, what time it's gonna land, what the altitude is, what kind of plane it is, what speed it's going at," Piquero said.

"I should be able to know those exact same answers to the questions of crime," he said.

And he said we're getting there, "we're just not there yet."

The transition to a more robust system

In 2016, the federal government announced it would retire the old way of submitting crime data, the Summary Reporting System.

Starting in 2021, the FBI and the BJS transitioned to only accepting data through the more robust National Incident-Based Reporting System in hopes of capturing a more accurate, nuanced and granular look at crime in the U.S.

"NIBRS gives us so much more than the old system ever did," said Piquero.

But two of the largest agencies in the country, the NYPD and LAPD have not yet transitioned to the new system, so were unable to report their 2021 crime numbers to the federal government in 2022.

"When you're building out for a very large department such as this, it's going to take time," LAPD Deputy Chief Pitcher said.

"It's a long drawn-out process to build the system, to test it, to make the revisions to that system, and then ultimately, to be certified," he continued.

And Piquero said agencies and local governments as a whole need both resources and political capital to build systems like this.

"People are always going to ask, well, what's in it for me, like why would I do this? Why would I sacrifice time? Why would I sacrifice dollars? Why would I sacrifice people? So you got to show them the value for themselves, independent of the value for the community," Piquero said.

"Police departments, just like I am, we're public officials. And we owe it to the people that we work for and represent to give them the best available information for them to use for their purposes," he said.