Getting Ready for the NIBRS Transition

By Sheriff Anthony Wickersham (Macomb County, Michigan) and Chief Edwin Roessler (Fairfax County, Virginia)

On January 1, 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will retire the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s Summary Reporting System (SRS). After then, the FBI will only collect crime statistics through the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). We should understand why this is an important move and prepare for it.

As local law enforcement executives, we face the same challenges you do when it comes to federal systems and changes, but the switch from UCR SRS to NIBRS is one that is necessary. While some may see it as an added cost, we’ve found the change to be both manageable and effective. Our agencies have seen many benefits after switching to NIBRS, including the ability to better track and analyze drug-related crimes and better data on location types, among others outlined below. We recommend all law enforcement executives to continue reading for more information about this important transition and opportunity for our profession.

Why NIBRS matters

NIBRS is more comprehensive and detailed than SRS.  Although SRS has served our nation for many decades, NIBRS is a more modern system with a number of advantages:

  • NIBRS counts 58 categories of offenses compared to the 10 categories of offenses SRS gathers. The more expansive list includes offenses such as extortion and kidnapping, as well as many other common or serious offenses not included in SRS.
  • NIBRS can collect data on up to 10 offenses per incident. This means NIBRS can help answer questions about relationships between offenses, like “How many robberies also include homicide?” SRS only counts the one most serious offense per incident, causing it to undercount offenses and making it inadequate for showing the links between offense types.
  • NIBRS collects details about crime SRS does not, such as 45 location types like construction sites and liquor stores.
  • Users of NIBRS can sort and filter data to answer questions like “How many weapon law violations happen at restaurants?” SRS aggregates data, which means it only produces totals and cannot be sorted and filtered to answer various questions about crime.

Dispelling concerns

Perception of data. One concern you may have about the NIBRS transition is how community leaders and the media will react to an apparent increase in crime rates with NIBRS. Because NIBRS captures a more complete measurement of crime, it can potentially result in larger reported numbers. You can proactively deal with this concern by engaging with community leaders and the media before you make the transition, explaining the benefits of NIBRS, how NIBRS differs from SRS, and how NIBRS provides a more transparent and complete understanding of crime. This way, the community and the media will be prepared for the change in crime statistics and understand it is a beneficial upgrade of data, not an actual increase in crime rates.

Records Management System (RMS) compatibility. Another concern you may have is whether you will need to replace your RMS software in order to be NIBRS-capable. You might not be aware of this, but you may already have NIBRS-compatible software. If your agency has purchased commercial “off the shelf” RMS software within the last decade, then the software is likely already NIBRS-compatible. If you are not certain, consult your RMS vendor or technical documentation to find out whether your current RMS software is configured for NIBRS.

Funding. Also, you may have concerns about how to get funding for the transition to NIBRS. Be aware, funding assistance may be available through the following sources:

  • Your state government. Some states like Texas have specifically allocated funding for agency transitions to NIBRS, and some states might have other kinds of funds available for you to use.
  • The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program. The Bureau of Justice Assistance offers JAG funds to agencies based on their violent crime statistics and their population figures. In the past, several agencies have used JAG monies to fund their transition to NIBRS. It is a potential resource worth checking into for your agency.
  • The National Crime Statistics Exchange (NCS-X). This is an initiative of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in partnership with the FBI. Through NCS-X, the FBI and the BJS seek to transition 400 select agencies to NIBRS. The data of newly converted agencies combined with that of the current NIBRS contributors will yield a dataset that is nationally representative. To assist local and state agencies identified through the NCS-X initiative, the FBI and the BJS are providing funding for the NIBRS transition. Check whether your agency is on the NCS-X listing and view the latest NCS-X solicitation for additional information.

Even if your agency is not eligible for NCS-X funds or you miss the solicitation deadline, you can still use the information resources on the NCS-X web page. These resources include incident-based reporting playbooks, cost estimation guides, a NIBRS precertification tool, and other useful materials to help your agency.

Our experiences with NIBRS

Macomb County, Michigan. In the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office, we have made the switch to NIBRS and understand the challenges—and more importantly, the benefits. As we began to report to NIBRS, we had some initial issues with data quality. But we soon got past this challenge and started to experience the benefits.

One of the main advantages of NIBRS for Macomb County was how NIBRS could help the county deal with drugs. Macomb County has been experiencing the opiate epidemic since about 2008, and NIBRS collects details about drugs to help the county deal with it.

NIBRS collects a wealth of data about drugs offenses:

  • Drug types and quantities
  • Age, sex, race, and ethnicity of offenders and arrestees
  • Details like types of criminal activity/gang involvement, location types, and property lost/seized
  • Information about whether offenders are suspected of using drugs

With this information, Macomb County has been able to better track and analyze drug-related incidents. This has enhanced Macomb County’s ability to understand and address factors like drug arrests, narcotic deaths, and Narcan® administrations. And because NIBRS collects this data on multiple offenses per criminal incident, we can track these narcotic-related factors in relation to other crimes.

Fairfax County, Virginia.  Fairfax County has recently become one of the largest NIBRS-participating agencies. We had the technical ability to make the switch to NIBRS fairly easily, and we accomplished the transition in just a few months. But we were concerned about how community leaders and the media would interpret the change in crime statistics.

We dealt with this challenge by actively communicating the change to the media and community leaders, explaining the transition. One effective technique we used was to give journalists “homework” about NIBRS crime statistics. We gave journalists an overview of the advantages and changes with NIBRS, invited them to compare NIBRS figures with SRS figures, and asked them how they should report the difference. This exercise drew journalists into the NIBRS transition and positively stimulated them to think about how they would explain the transition to the public. By having these kinds of interactive discussions with community stakeholders, we prevented negative public reaction.

Make the switch to NIBRS—soon

If your agency has not started the transition to NIBRS yet, what are you waiting for? Since it usually takes agencies one to two years to complete a transition, 2018 is a pivotal year to allow your agency enough time to make the switch ahead of the FBI’s January 2021 cutoff date. After that, the FBI will no longer collect SRS data for its crime statistics. And if your agency receives funding based on the publication of your crime data, you risk the possibility of losing funding. That is why your agency should start the transition to NIBRS quickly to avoid gaps in your statistics and funding.

For assistance with your NIBRS transition, contact the FBI by phone at 304-625-9999 or by email at UCR-NIBRS@fbi.gov.

Anthony Wickersham has been sheriff of Macomb County, Michigan, since 2011. He has a bachelor of arts degree from Wayne State University; and he is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety School of Police Staff and Command, and the United States Secret Service Dignitary Protection Seminar. He is a member of the Michigan Chiefs of Police Association, the Michigan Sheriff’s Association, the FBI National Academy Associates, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Major County Sheriffs of America, the Michigan High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Executive Board, and the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board. He is also Board Chair of the County of Macomb Enforcement Team, Vice Chair of the Community Corrections Advisory Board, and an adjunct professor at Macomb Community College.

Edwin Roessler has served in law enforcement for more than 30 years since beginning is career with the New York City Department of Investigation. He has been Chief of Police of Fairfax County, Virginia, since 2013. He has a graduate degree from George Washington University and an undergraduate degree from Arizona State University. He is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Police Executive Research Forum, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the FBI National Academy Associates, and the Society for Human Resource Management. He serves as senior advisor to the International Association of Chiefs of Police International Police Education and Training Program, member of the Major Cities Chiefs Human Resources Committee, board member of the FBI National Executive Institute Associates, and chairman of Special Olympics Virginia.

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