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At first blush, a report earlier this summer from The Marshall Project about the FBI’s new crime reporting system was damning.

Thousands of police departments across the country weren’t using the system, even though the FBI implemented it in January 2021, the nonprofit news organization reported. 

The Watchdog’s examination found just 41 of 1,501 law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania are using the new system.

Most concerning: Not a single county department is among them. Nor is the Pennsylvania State Police, which provides coverage to more than 20 of the county's 60 municipalities, mostly in the county’s southern and eastern parts.

The Watchdog wondered, what’s going on? Why aren’t our law enforcement agencies doing their part in the fight against crime?

The answer to those questions is quite involved. 

The FBI’s new system isn’t mandatory. Police departments, both locally and across the country, cite funding, training and lack of technology as hurdles to adopting the feds’ new reporting system.

But it’s not like police in Lancaster County are sitting on their hands. The municipal and regional police departments here are still reporting the data they collect to the Pennsylvania State Police, which makes it publicly available. In fact, police departments are required under Pennsylvania law to report crime statistics monthly or risk loss of funding and grant opportunities. 

But when the FBI switched to the new system, it stopped accepting the data the way it had done — which is the way departments in Pennsylvania still report to state police. Hence The Marshall Project’s finding that few police departments across Pennsylvania were sending data to the FBI.

How did we get here?

For nearly a century, law enforcement has recognized that collecting and studying data is a key to understanding crime. 

Beginning in 1930, the FBI took over data collection from the country’s police departments, which had been sharing data between themselves since the 1920s.

The FBI issued reports through the Uniform Crime Reporting Program to provide information on homicide, rape, assault, burglary and robbery to law enforcement agencies, criminologists and the public.

Crimes haven’t changed. But times — and data collection capabilities — have. 

Several decades ago, the FBI began developing a more detailed system for collecting crime data from police departments across the country, a system intended to give a more thorough picture of crime in its annual “Crime in the United States” report.

It’s called the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS.

“The transition to the richer, NIBRS-only data standard will provide greater context at the national level to allow the FBI and its contributing agencies to identify and address evolving crime issues,” the FBI wrote to LNP|LancasterOnline in response to written questions about the shift to the program.

NIBRS collects far more data than the previous system, such as victim and offender demographics, any relationship between offender and victim, whether multiple crimes were involved and weapon type. It also collects details on where and when a crime occurred and whether it was solved.

NIBRS adoption in Pennsylvania

Though police departments can submit NIBRS data themselves, the FBI prefers that departments report to one state agency, which in turn submits data to the FBI.

The Pennsylvania State Police hasn’t switched over to NIBRS yet, so police departments have been reporting data under the old summary reporting system.

Capt. Brent Miller said in an email Wednesday that the agency is “working on a software compatibility issue that was discovered with its vendor when data was submitted to the FBI. PSP is taking the necessary steps to ensure the data is accurate and data pushes will resume in the coming months.”

Miller also noted that reporting under NIBRS is voluntary, which he said has slowed many local departments’ adoption of the new system.

“One challenge for some agencies is the time it can take to transition to NIBRS and the cost to do so, which can be outside of the agency's control due to the development of necessary supporting software to accommodate the additional reporting,” Miller said.

The Watchdog polled county police chiefs about the transition to NIBRS.

Several chiefs who responded cited the additional training as a challenge, as well as the need to upgrade existing record management systems to accept and submit NIBRS data.

“This is a state issue, not a local one. PSP is the clearing house, we can not direct submit to the FBI,” said West Earl Township Police Chief Eric Higgins. He said his officers were trained on NIBRS in July and the department’s record management system provider is awaiting certification by the state police.

Manheim Township Chief Thomas Rudzinski said in a written response to the Watchdog that NIBRS “requires a lot of extra work on the part of the patrol officer… It’s not that we don’t want to do the work to report to NIBRS — we just put the priority on responding to our calls. (Uniform Crime Reporting) is handled solely by civilian records personnel. NIBRS will require more involved input from the officers.”

Manheim Township, which also provides police service to Lancaster Township, is the second busiest department and handled nearly 39,000 dispatches in 2021, of which 2,252 were crimes, he said.

Manheim Township and other county departments said they either have done training on NIBRS reporting, are in the process or will soon begin training.

Rudzinski said in an email that training will have a cost, but, “The biggest ‘cost’ will be having less patrol officers responding to calls and engaged in active patrol. Yet to be seen is whether more records staff and officers will be needed to make up for the extra work, but that is a separate issue.”

Rudzinski also cautioned that because so much more data is being collected under NIBRS, “it will inadvertently show an increase in crime over the previous year” when it does go into effect.

One reason for that is that under the old system, the FBI only counted the most serious crime, even if several offenses happened at the same time.

NIBRS “is more complex and requires specific information,” Columbia’s Chief Jack Brommer said.

Lancaster police Lt. Philip Berkheiser said its current record management system provider is moving to an online system that may be available later this year for select departments, but may not be more widely available until sometime next year.  

Berkheiser said the department will meet with its provider next month to get costs and other information so it can decide if it will stick with it, or look for another provider. That’s because its provider has indicated it may not support the department’s current version after 2025.

Once that decision is made, Berkheiser said, “we will be in a better position to successfully transition to NIBRS.”

 

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