Uniform Crime Reporting Program: Still Vital After 90 Years

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles exploring the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program as it reaches its 90th year. Currently, the FBI produces four annual publications from data provided by more than 18,000 federal, state, county, city, university and college, and tribal law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the UCR program. In the coming weeks, additional data collections will be featured. 

The Jazz Age: Summary Reporting System (SRS)

During the 1920s, American society underwent profound changes. The Roaring Twenties brought voting rights for women, the rapid growth of popular entertainment for the masses, and the advent of the automotive industry. The decade also brought a Constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture or sale of alcohol, creating a thriving black market that led to the rise of crime bosses like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) responded to the increase of all types of crime throughout the country by proposing a way to monitor crime on a national level. In 1927, using a grant, the IACP formed the Committee on Uniform Crime Records, which was tasked with developing a system for law enforcement agencies to report crime data.

By 1929, the IACP had developed a system to classify and report crimes and recommended that the Bureau of Investigation—which became the FBI in 1935—administer the program. The Bureau had already been working to centralize criminal identification records from across the nation, so this new endeavor seemed like a natural fit.

The IACP published the first Uniform Crime Reports bulletin in January 1930. It included reported crimes from 400 cities and 43 states. It was a remarkable feat, considering that the IACP had established the guidelines only two months before. On June 11, 1930, Congress authorized the Bureau to collect, compile, and distribute crime statistics via the SRS data collection, including statistics on murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and auto theft. Because of the need for simplicity, SRS aggregated the figures and counted offenses according to a “hierarchy rule” that only counted one most serious offense per incident.

Participation in SRS increased to:

  • 1,400 agencies by 1934
  • 5,700 agencies by 1956 and
  • 16,659 by 2018.

Today, the FBI publishes SRS statistics in Crime in the United States, with online publications dating back to the 1995 reporting year.

In the decades since the development of SRS, the nature of crime has become more sophisticated, and the limitations of the reporting system have become more evident. Consequently, the FBI will retire SRS after this year and collect crime statistics only through the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). However, the FBI will continue to convert NIBRS data into the SRS format to maintain trends for several years.

The Modern Age: National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) 

NIBRS originated in 1985, when the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics collaborated on Blueprint for the Future of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, a report aimed at bringing crime statistics into the electronic era. The blueprint called for the development of a more modern crime statistics reporting system that would gather more complicated data than SRS and capitalize on advances in data technology. This more modern system became NIBRS.

Superior to SRS, NIBRS collects incident-based data like weapon usage and location types on 52 categories of offenses, plus arrest data on 10 categories of offenses. NIBRS data is not aggregated, meaning that the totals can be divided into subtotals, such as the number of homicides committed with a certain type of firearm or the number of crimes committed against juveniles at a certain time of day. And with no hierarchy rule to eliminate counts of multiple offenses in an incident, NIBRS can capture the complete overall number of crimes.

In 1991, the FBI began collecting crime data for NIBRS. For the next 20 years, the FBI made NIBRS data available by request on data files but did not publish it until 2011. On January 1, 2021, when the FBI retires SRS, NIBRS will be the nation’s main crime statistics system.

The Digital Age: The Crime Data Explorer

Crime data is dynamic. Offenses occur, arrests are made, and property is recovered every day. The FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, the digital front door for UCR data, is an attempt to reflect that fluidity in crime. The data presented there is updated regularly in a way that UCR publications previously could not be. Launched in 2017, the CDE’s content and features are updated and expanded continuously. CDE enables law enforcement agencies, researchers, journalists, and the public to more easily use and understand the massive amounts of UCR data using charts and graphs.

CDE can:

  • Access NIBRS, SRS, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and police employment data.
  • Sort data on a national, state, or departmental level.
  • Download whole UCR datasets or specified tables.
  • Filter data by time going back to 1985.
  • Select specific offense categories.
  • Automatically generate data visualizations.
  • Seamlessly integrate updated data from past years.

The FBI continues to develop CDE, intending it to be the main portal for users to access nationwide crime data. The FBI plans for CDE to:

  • Include all UCR data collections.
  • Feature data stories that show how data can be understood and used.
  • Be sortable by more data elements, making it more versatile for different users.
  • Have quarterly updates.
  • Contain data from federal agencies.

The Future: Beyond 90 Years 

Over the last 90 years, as trends and events have presented new challenges and opportunities, the FBI has expanded and refined the UCR Program to keep it modern and relevant. The UCR Program continues to evolve to serve law enforcement and meet society’s needs for reliable crime data.