The FBI’s national crime database only paints an incomplete picture of crime in 2021 right now, as new reporting shows nearly 40% of U.S. law enforcement agencies, including many in Central New York, did not self-report their crime data last year.

The numbers are bleak in New York state, which reported the ninth lowest rate among other states in the country, according to the same reporting by the Marshall Project. 

The crux of the issue? Some police departments blame a slow-going nationwide transition to the FBI’s new standard data collection system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System. 

The Syracuse Police Department, among six other Central New York agencies, did not report any data at all to the FBI national database for 2021. That missing data has implications for communities and policymakers alike, local experts said.

Overall, SPD struggled with getting data in on time because of their slow transition to the FBI’s new standardized data system, said SPD Lt. Matthew Malinowksi. SPD records department staff were not immediately available for an interview. 

“It’s not that we’re not reporting,” said David Guerrera, deputy chief of Cortland Police Department. “It’s just that it was a delay in getting compliant with NIBRS standards.”

Unlike the old system, known as the Uniform Crime Reporting system, the new National Incident-Based Reporting System requires significantly more details from the data it collects. These differences make NIBRS way more comprehensive, but also way more time consuming.

Only 13% of law enforcement agencies in New York fully self-reported their 2021 crime data to the FBI’s database, according to reporting by The Marshall Project. Approximately 20% of NY law enforcement did not report any data at all for 2021.

Within Central New York, only 3 of 15 local law enforcement agencies in Onondaga, Oswego, Madison, Cortland and Cayuga counties were among that initial 13%. 

NIBRS redefines and recategorizes different crimes, and it also has new data fields for details like victim-offender relationships and circumstance data for aggravated assaults.

But those extra blank spaces take up extra valuable time for police departments to file their data with the FBI’s national database.

While that data gap persists, experts say the public and policy makers will stay in the dark about the realities of crime in their communities — a troubling space for progress on police accountability. 

Graphic by Marnie Muñoz

A program transition in progress 

“It just took a period of time for our software to merge with what the state has,” Guerrera of the Cortland department said.  

CPD is one of the 520 NY agencies which did not report its 2021 data at all, a circumstance he said is unfortunate, but not necessarily malicious. 

With NIBRS things are just different, Guerrera said.

The crime reporting status quo shifted abruptly when the FBI announced NIBRS as the new standard for crime data reporting on January 1, 2021, effectively rendering UCR and other retired data reporting systems moot in the data reporting process from that point forward. 

Law enforcement agencies are still navigating the transition to NIBRS today, which could explain the incomplete 2021 data, said Kirstan Conley, deputy director of public information at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. 

Currently, only 127 of 522 agencies in New York state have fully converted to the NIBRS system, Conley said. An additional 36 agencies are in talks with DCJS now to make the switch, while others are still working with their own IT vendors and staff, she said.

The Syracuse Police Department, for example, which did not report data to the national database in 2021, is one such agency that is working independently of DCJS to get onboard with NIBRS, Conley said.

Some agencies in Central New York, like the Oswego Police Department, were able to fully self-report their data in 2021.

OPD has three full time records clerks, a staffing feature that may have given the department a leg up in filing their full report on time, said OPD Deputy Police Chief Zachary Misztal.

“We’re always adapting and always trying to move forward in our agency,” Misztal said. “We’ve taken a pretty aggressive approach to trying to be in the forefront of changes in the handoff of addressing the needs of our community members.”

Guerrera and Misztal both pointed to patrol deployment and funding as key uses for the crime data that CPD and OPD compile. Officers across the force in both departments regularly review data reports to reassess where their presence is needed most, they said.

Police departments will also often consult with New York state troopers, and various county sheriff’s departments when there is jurisdictional overlap, Misztal said.

“If we’re seeing trends or things moving in different directions, we’re able to manipulate that and manipulate our personnel to, I guess, address those issues before they get out of hand,” Misztal said.

Graphic by Marnie Muñoz

Navigating transparency

But while the national crime database remains incomplete, real-time impacts loom large over New York law enforcement and the communities they serve.

“Data is only as good as the collector of the data,” said Ranette Releford, the administrator for Syracuse’s Citizen Review Board, a public accountability group which holds forums for citizen complaints against the Syracuse Police Department. 

“That data is important, but we need to know that the data is accurate,” Releford said, adding that she thinks there should be better transparency and oversight for law enforcement agencies that fail to self-report their data on time.

Releford would like to expand the CRB’s focus to examine trends on the FBI’s national crime database. Right now the board simply doesn’t have the staffing capacity to do so, she said. Instead, her day-to-day work relies on public accessibility to only local police records.

At large, it’s a system that’s as complicated as it is vast, she said.

“You have to be a really strategic person and a really faithful person in order to get through those levels without getting weary,” Releford said.

Without new data, an incomplete picture

The gap in publicly accessible police data holds lots of policy implications that extend beyond local organizing too, said Alison Marganski, Director of Criminology at Le Moyne College.

“Having the data has great importance for law enforcement and the public,” Marganski said in an email. “Conversely, there are issues with not knowing about crime, which can hinder understanding and addressing it.” 

Cross-referencing crime data can help policymakers, police and the public understand key social problems and their patterns long-term, Marganski wrote. Crime data analysis can also function as a tool to proactively prevent crimes from taking place, she said.

Understanding crime data can empower the public, researchers and media to understand our own communities, Marganski said. 

But there are limitations to drawing conclusions from just that data alone, she said, since police records only reflect crimes that are officially reported to the authorities — a number nationally estimated to be less than half of all crimes which occur overall, according to the Pew Research Center.

Taking into account victimization surveys is one way to account for this discrepancy, Marganski said. But it will take more than databases like the National Crime Victimization Survey and the FBI’s national crime database to fully understand how crime affects communities, she said. 

The system isn’t perfect, but Misztal of Oswego Police said he believes policing and information sharing should go hand in hand. This will have to be the case for the future of policing too, he said.

“We want to provide the best services that we can for our community for the people that we’re servicing, ” Misztal said. “So, at the end of the day, I think info sharing is very important.” 

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Follow Marnie Muñoz at @munoz_marnie.

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