Tennessee law enforcement bucks crime data reporting trend

Data: FBI, The Marshall Project; Graphic: Jared Whalen/Axios Visuals

Tennessee law enforcement performed better than many counterparts across the country in reporting annual crime statistics to the FBI last year, according to data provided to Axios through a partnership with The Marshall Project.

  • More than 93% of Tennessee agencies reported data for 2021, compared to about 60% nationally.

Why is this important: The voluntary state has bucked a trend that will lead to a data gap, experts say it’s harder to analyze crime trends and verify politicians’ claims about crime, according to The Marshall Project , a nonprofit U.S. criminal justice watchdog.

The big picture: Nearly 40% of agencies across the country, including the New York and Los Angeles police departments, did not submit any data in 2021.

Enlarge: Tennessee officials say the state has been collecting detailed data for decades, which has helped ensure compliance with the new federal reporting system.

  • Data experts from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told Axios they are working to help other lagging states.

The backdrop: Last year, the FBI retired its nearly century-old national crime data collection program and switched to a new system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), which collects more specific information on each incident.

  • Even though the FBI announced the transition years ago, nearly 7,000 of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies did not send crime data to the voluntary program in 2021.

State of play: Data collected by The Marshall Project shows that departments in Tennessee’s largest cities — including Nashville — submitted statistics for all 12 months of 2021, while some smaller agencies provided data for one to 11 months.

  • The TBI says Axios data from some smaller agencies may not reflect any reported crimes during certain parts of the year.

What they say : The bureau switched to the NIBRS system in the 1990s, which explains the state’s higher reporting rate, TBI’s Dale King told Axios.

  • King, who works with the state’s data system, helped write a Spring 2020 paper with the FBI’s warning states to work ahead on the NIBRS transition.
  • “Agencies that wait until 2021 to begin their transition efforts will likely find the process to be much more difficult than if they had begun their transition efforts earlier,” the article states.

The bottom line: King says the more detailed data — which can track the time and location of crimes and the relationships between suspects and victims — could prove critical in preventing crime. TBI also shares data with nonprofits, including sexual assault centers and domestic violence groups, who use the information to support survivors.

  • “I preach to our state and anyone who wants to listen: Use the data,” King says, his voice cracking. “For me, as a survivor of domestic violence, it’s all about the survivors, it’s all about the people.”
  • “It’s so meaningful. It can save that person from having to go through this. … If we can help stop the crime, then we have to help stop the crime.”