Questions NIBRS Can Answer

Logo for the FBI's National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

Just as the Ford Model T automobile revolutionized transportation in 1908, the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s Summary Reporting System (SRS) revolutionized crime statistics when it was conceived in 1929. But just as the Model T was replaced with a more innovative and useful alternative, SRS is being replaced with the more detailed and comprehensive National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The FBI will retire the SRS on January 1, 2021, and thereafter collect crime statistics only through NIBRS. Currently, about one-third of law enforcement agencies in the United States participate in NIBRS. Fortunately, every agency is about to learn the usefulness of NIBRS for crime measurement and analysis. With NIBRS, the American people can obtain answers to questions about crime SRS cannot provide.

How NIBRS Is Superior to SRS

NIBRS can count as many as 10 offenses per incident, producing a more complete accounting of the number of crimes than SRS can produce. This is because SRS features a hierarchy rule, counting only the one most serious offense within an incident. For example, if a murder and a robbery happen in the same incident, then the hierarchy rule dictates SRS will only count the murder. But by counting up to 10 offenses per incident, NIBRS can count more offenses and also capture information about multiple crimes occurring in the same incident. Examples of questions NIBRS can answer that SRS cannot because of this are:

  • How does the reported number of burglaries compare to the reported number of robberies? When these offenses occur in the same incident, NIBRS captures both in the same manner. However, because robbery is ranked higher according to the SRS hierarchy rule, the SRS keeps a more complete count of robberies than it keeps of burglaries. This is also true for any two types of crimes measured by the SRS, with the exception of murder and non-negligent manslaughter.
  • How many aggravated assaults would be reported if the SRS hierarchy rule—which does not count them in instances of homicide, rape, or robbery cases—is not applied for multiple-offense incidents? Aggravated assault sometimes occurs in the same incident as other violent crimes, but when any two of those offenses occur to different victims in the same incident, NIBRS captures both offenses. However, the SRS does not count aggravated assault unless no other, more violent crime occurs in the same incident, regardless of the number of assault victims.
  • What is a more complete number of known occurrences of any offense? SRS only counts one crime per incident, so SRS figures can only be understood as partial and approximate. Although the percent increases per offense when using NIBRS instead of SRS may seem relatively small, the additional number of offenses counted provides a clearer picture of crime occurrences for consideration in making informed decisions about police resources.

NIBRS counts 48 more offense categories than SRS does, providing a much more comprehensive measurement of crime. Examples:

  • How many known extortions happened?
  • How many known briberies happened?
  • How many offenses of writing bad checks happened?

NIBRS captures more data about criminal incidents than SRS does in several ways about:

  • Crime victims: Law enforcement can report the age, sex, race, and ethnicity for all victims, not just for murder victims as reported for SRS.
  • Offenders: When an offender’s age, sex, race, or ethnicity is known for any offense, law enforcement includes such information in a NIBRS report; SRS only collects such data for murder victims.
  • Relationships between victims and offenders: As with victim and offender data, NIBRS collects this information for all offenses whereas SRS collects it only for murder.
  • Crime locations: Reaching far beyond SRS’ seven location designations for robbery and two for burglary, NIBRS offers more than 45 location designations to specify where any of its 58 reportable offenses take place.
  • Time when offenses occur: Other than SRS’ general categories of day and night, NIBRS allows the specificity of an offense’s occurrence down to the hour. In addition, NIBRS captures the date an offense occurs, which could be helpful in seeing what types of crime may be more prevalent than others at certain times of the year.
  • Weapons: NIBRS collects a wider category of weapon types for more offenses than SRS.
  • Circumstances: In addition to collecting circumstances surrounding homicides like SRS, NIBRS also collects these data for assaults.

NIBRS Meets Community Data Needs

Because NIBRS provides so much more information about crimes than SRS, NIBRS can be a much more effective tool for understanding, preventing, and combating crime. The following scenarios are examples of ways in which NIBRS can provide superior guidance for law enforcement agencies, private citizens, and journalists in addressing concerns about crime.

Scenario One: Law Enforcement Combats Increases in Crime

A city experiences an increase in the number of robberies, and the trend does not appear to be part of a large, nationwide trend. The city police department tries several strategies to combat the trend, including more vehicle patrols and undercover monitoring of places where robberies commonly happen, such as convenience stores. The trend of increasing robbery continues, and the police department continues to struggle to create effective strategies against it.

SRS provides little detailed data that would help the police department. Using SRS data, the police department can only gain a vague understanding of local trends, including basic numbers about robberies compared to numbers of other crimes, crime numbers in similar-sized cities, and general nationwide trends about robbery. Arrestee data don’t offer much more assistance. The police department lacks incident-related statistical details that could help in formulating targeted strategies.

With the help of NIBRS, the police department can do much better. Looking at NIBRS statistics for other nearby cities in the last two years, the police department sees that other cities in the local region have also experienced increases in robbery rates. Most of the increase in the number of robberies is accounted for by an increase in offenders who are 16-20 years old, most of the additional robberies happen on school campuses, and most of the additional victims are also 16-20 years old. The increase in the city’s robbery rate seems to be a manifestation of a regional increase in crime in schools. Based on this information, the police department can combat the increase in crime rates by enacting crime prevention and community outreach activities specifically aimed at schools.

Scenario Two: Concerned Citizens Use NIBRS to Engage with Public Policy-Makers

Concerned members of American communities wish to engage in discussions about criminal justice issues with legislators, governors, sheriffs, or other makers of public policy. Using SRS, the citizens can know an approximate count of incidents of some basic categories of crime, such as burglary and robbery. The concerned citizens can also know some incident-related details about crimes, such as what kinds of weapons were used to commit murders. Based on the amount of information SRS provides, the citizens can suggest vague or speculative public policies, not knowing whether the proposed policies will accurately target issues of crime causation.

For example, the citizens might suppose thousands of kidnappings per year occur at daycare facilities, and the citizens would address this concern by proposing major regulatory reforms to make daycare facilities more secure. The citizens’ proposal would be well-intended but purely speculative because SRS does not provide data about how many kidnappings occur or how many crimes occur at daycare facilities. In future years, SRS would not give the concerned citizens any way of knowing how necessary or effective the reforms were.

With NIBRS, the concerned citizens can make better-informed decisions. NIBRS data show only dozens, not thousands, of kidnappings per year happen at daycare facilities. Based on this information, the concerned citizens can make decisions about how to prioritize the issue. If the citizens decide to support reforms to make daycare facilities safer, NIBRS can provide data to help the citizens decide whether the reforms were effective because it collects the number of kidnappings known and the locations in which they occur. Or, NIBRS data could reveal more widespread crime issues the citizens would rather address to maximize the effectiveness of limited resources.

NIBRS Is the Answer

In conclusion, the move to NIBRS will provide more modern and in-depth crime statistics than was ever possible to gain from SRS. Law enforcement agencies, private citizens, journalists, and other groups can all benefit from nationwide NIBRS participation. NIBRS offers more thorough counts and details about crime than SRS does, so it is a more useful tool for public and private safety. As the January 1, 2021, cutover date approaches, the FBI strongly encourages all law enforcement agencies to begin and complete their transitions to NIBRS. With their participation, American communities will have a much more detailed and useful nationwide understanding of crime as a result.