Going NIBRS, Part 1: Two States Share Their Stories
April 11, 2017
On January 1, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will retire its Summary Reporting System (SRS) and thereafter collect crime data only through its National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). This will be a major change for Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) in America. Though 2021 seems far from now, law enforcement agencies need ample time to prepare for the implementation of NIBRS. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) have been working to achieve transition to NIBRS well ahead of that deadline. In this two-part series, these agencies (the BCA, featured in part one and the GBI, featured in part two) share their challenges and successes for other agencies preparing to make the change.
In Minnesota, the BCA has considered the NIBRS transition for years. On a couple of occasions over the past decade, the state of Minnesota assessed the possibility of effecting a transition to NIBRS as part of a project to replace its Criminal Justice Reporting System.
In 2012, to address a common state problem in the lack of consistency of law enforcement recordkeeping and reporting—a result of many law enforcement agencies using different data systems and reporting practices—the BCA began looking at options for replacing its crime reporting system again. The options considered included statewide NIBRS submissions, statewide SRS submissions, or a hybrid system of both NIBRS and SRS submissions.
Reaching a Decision
To facilitate the process, the BCA analyzed its reporting needs and goals for the future and formed a focus group of 15 law enforcement agencies, a combination of large metropolitan agencies and smaller, nonmetropolitan agencies. Following much discussion and debate, the focus group unanimously concluded that the BCA should make the transition to report its data through NIBRS. The BCA agreed with the focus group’s recommendation and presented it to the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Policy Group, which is now called the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Advisory Group. (With a charter and membership defined by statute, the Advisory Group provides direction for statewide criminal justice information integration.) At the Advisory Group’s recommendation, the Minnesota Legislature approved and funded the initiative in July 2013.
In October 2013, the BCA began its Crime Reporting System project that includes transitioning from the state’s SRS mainframe system to NIBRS. In late 2014, the BCA began developing its new submission system, and in 2017, the BCA expects to achieve hybrid submissions as it continues to work toward full NIBRS submissions.
Initially, the BCA had considered using the National Data Exchange (N-DEx) model for developing its NIBRS compliancy program. The N-DEx System complements other law enforcement data-sharing systems, such as the National Crime Information Center and the Interstate Identification Index, but it is primarily engineered as an investigative tool. Conversely, NIBRS is intended to help law enforcement and policy makers track crime and allocate resources and to aid researchers in studying crime. Furthermore, because the N-DEx System is not fully compatible with NIBRS, the BCA decided against using it as a model. Instead, the BCA decided that the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) would better serve its purposes for a NIBRS-compliant system. The NIEM, a system of partnership between the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, facilitates information-sharing between agencies by standardizing methodology and semantics, resulting in greater informational compatibility. The BCA concluded that the NIEM would be a good conduit to facilitate interagency information sharing in Minnesota because Minnesota’s law enforcement community wanted to share uniform, accurate, detailed crime data.
To implement its NIBRS transition plan, the BCA conducted initial analyses on current systems and determined future needs. Next, the BCA engaged with an interagency focus group to understand user needs and increase user support. The BCA then selected a set of pilot agencies and their vendors to test and refine the Extensible Markup Language (XML) submission format, both from the agencies to the state and from the state to the FBI. During this process, the BCA worked closely with the FBI to understand NIBRS requirements, ran submission tests, and became NIBRS certified, signaling that the agency’s submissions meet the FBI’s NIBRS submission criteria. The BCA achieved NIBRS certification in August 2016 and expects to complete its testing and compliance phase to conduct a statewide rollout of full NIBRS submission this year.
When the BCA implemented its NIBRS transition plan, it went beyond the standard “flat file” format of unstructured data and used the more versatile XML format that can transmit structure along with data. However, because the FBI still uses a flat-file standard for agencies to submit data to NIBRS, the BCA needed to convert its XML data into flat files for its NIBRS submissions. (Although the FBI currently uses a flat-file standard, it also offers the XML format as a programming option because the UCR Program plans to begin processing data in that format beginning in 2018.) In addition, the BCA wanted to receive and retain more incident-related data than the NIBRS flat file format will accept, so the BCA conducted an analysis to develop compatible programming that would allow its system to capture both NIBRS-compliant data and a larger amount of incident data.
For example, although NIBRS captures up to 10 criminal offenses per incident, the BCA allows agencies to report even more than 10 offenses. As another example, NIBRS collects up to three reported drug types per incident, but the BCA collects an unlimited number of drug types per incident. These differences of specifications require Minnesota to generate two sets of data: one set of NIBRS-compliant data and one set with additional data elements for state usage. Furthermore, because Minnesota is one of only a few states at the forefront of using XML for NIBRS submissions, the BCA has had limited options for consulting specification documents or the related experiences of other state programs or the FBI for guidance.
Results of Minnesota’s NIBRS Transition
By developing its own crime reporting system, Minnesota has had the flexibility to tailor it, to include much more data than a basic NIBRS-compliant system. The BCA expects that full NIBRS compliance will result in more accurate and timely capture of crime data. Also, Minnesota’s participation in NIBRS will enable it to exchange more meaningful crime data with neighboring states, because states near Minnesota have either completed the NIBRS transition or are in the process of making the transition. In addition, the greater availability of crime data will help law enforcement partners better serve their communities.
Certainly, the NIBRS transition process has been a learning experience (and a lot of hard work) for the BCA and Minnesota law enforcement. The state developed a detailed set of specifications and business rules for vendors of records management systems. The BCA mapped its statute tables to UCR codes to ensure the correct classification of offenses and provided a Web service for records management vendors to ingest data that includes statutes, UCR codes, and descriptions for statutes that correspond to multiple UCR codes. The BCA also assists local agencies in mapping their ordinances to UCR codes.
Stressing the importance of communication, Minnesota developed a statewide communication strategy that includes points of contact, communication schedules, methods, and key messages. The BCA shares information about the NIBRS transition at conferences and onsite visits with pilot agencies, as well as in quarterly newsletters, fact sheets, magazine articles, and a project webpage, available at https://dps.mn.gov/divisions/bca/bca-divisions/mnjis/Pages/crime-reporting-system.aspx.
The BCA maintains an active partnership with pilot agencies to facilitate project effectiveness, and it funds the development of their records management system adapters (i.e., the processes or programs that allow the local agencies’ data to be compatible with the state’s system requirements). In addition, they provide updates for their vendors. Also, the BCA hosts teleconferences with pilot agencies and vendors and participates with them in required training.
Based on its progress and successes, the BCA has learned a number of valuable lessons that may benefit other agencies in their own NIBRS transition planning. First, it is important for an agency to involve NIBRS stakeholders in the process and to ensure that it has sufficient resources to complete the project. Second, a state should develop a system for state statutes and local ordinances to map to UCR offense codes so that different agencies or vendors will be consistent in how they report crime data. In addition, an agency should create a NIBRS transition training program and tie training requirements and project milestones to any funding payments for vendors. Because vendors do not receive formal FBI training on NIBRS, agencies should encourage vendors to attend their state NIBRS training. A NIBRS transition is a major change that poses challenges to law enforcement agency staff, so agencies should be supportive of the staff who are implementing the changes. Finally, the BCA’s experiences with its NIBRS transition reaffirmed what the state agency knew all along: Communication is the key to success.
To help your agency get started in making the transition to NIBRS, contact your state agency, e-mail the FBI’s UCR Program at UCR-NIBRS@ic.fbi.gov, or call the NIBRS staff line at 304-625-9999.