U.S. violent crime decreased slightly last year even as the number of murders edged higher after rising sharply at the height of the pandemic the previous year, according to a new FBI report released Wednesday.
The report comes at a time when many Americans worry about violent crime, and the issue has come to dominate public discourse ahead of the midterm U.S. congressional elections next month.
But the FBI cautioned against putting too much weight on the data, saying the figures are based on statistically insignificant estimates.
“The nonsignificant nature of the observed trends is why, despite these described changes, the overall message is that crime remained consistent,” the FBI said in a statement.
Overall, there were a total of 1,326,600 violent crime incidents last year, a decrease of 1% from 1,313,200 in 2020, the FBI said. Contributing to the decline was a sharp decrease of nearly 9% in robberies, the FBI said.
Meanwhile, the number of murders rose from 22,000 to 22,900 in 2021, an increase of 4.3%.
In 2020, homicides jumped by nearly 30% in the largest surge ever recorded by the FBI.
While the latest FBI crime figures come with caveats, independent researchers tracking violent crime trends have reported similar patterns.
Research by the Council on Criminal Justice, or CCA, and others suggests that the spike in violent crime in 2020 appears to have plateaued. A recent CCJ report estimated that homicides fell by 2% during the first half of 2022.
Criminologists questioned the usefulness of the FBI’s latest crime data, noting that large gaps in the data were because of a lack of police department participation in the FBI’s new crime reporting system.
In the past, the FBI used a system that reported on general trends in violent and property crimes. But last year, the bureau rolled out a new reporting system that provides more granular data, such as information about the types of weapons used in violent offenses.
Participation in the system called the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS), is voluntary, however, and many police departments have yet to make the switch.
While participation in the old system hovered at about 90% in recent years, just 63% of police departments submitted data through the new system, the lowest participation rate in more than four decades.
As a result, this year’s crime figures are more approximate than in the past, according to criminologists.
“Because of low participation rates, the 2021 NIBRS crime estimates do not support definitive statements about whether crime is up or down,” Thomas Abt, a criminologist and senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, wrote on Twitter. “Almost none of the estimates reach statistical significance. That said, we can expect NIBRS estimates to improve in future years.”
FBI officials defended the data.
“The value of this additional information will be immediately clear and will only accrue as more agencies come online,” Michael A. Christman, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division assistant director, and Alexis R. Piquero, Bureau of Justice Statistics director, wrote in a statement.
“While the submitted data may not be complete for each state, statisticians have developed improved modeling methods to account for missing information, making it possible to ascertain trends and extrapolate information from participating jurisdictions when data are unavailable from others.”