What can crime data really tell us?

Community safety impacts our health and mental well-being, but there is a limit on how much we can know.


A safe neighborhood allows us to walk to school, exercise, visit with neighbors and simply get outside. These all impact our health and mental well-being.

While COVID-19 caused us to re-evaluate access to outdoor space, one part of the equation is how safe we feel where we live. It is challenging to assess safety – as it is as much perception as it is reality.

One part of the equation is law enforcement. There are 17,985 separate law enforcement agencies in the United States ranging from community police to county sheriffs to federal agents and more.

While the United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, overall crime has dropped precipitously since the 1990s. However …

Crime Data is Not Created Equal

This may be an understatement in many ways – not only in the application of the law but also in how data is collected and shared.

The national imprisonment rate has fallen since 2006 but the majority of the population still remains disproportionately black and Latinx as reported by the Pew Research Center. The history of policing in the United States is fraught with implicit and explicit bias and racism extending back as far as the 1800s, when law enforcement organized slave patrols, to the present-day reckoning that was ignited by the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Every one of the nearly 18,000 law enforcement jurisdictions has nuances to how they collect and report data around police activity. Few, if any, publicly report the sorts of demographic data that would allow us to dive deeper into race/ethnicity.

Careful Use of Crime Data

Crime data is one of our most frequent requests at Metopio. We go to great lengths to find and curate data sources that can help inform your decision-making. This set of topics, however, is particularly difficult.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collects and curates data from law enforcement organizations across the country on a specific set of crimes, and is an authority on these topics.

We have curated 10 major categories of crimes, as well as per-capita rates for each of these crimes, so you can compare different places on an equal basis. Some considerations when using this data set –

  • There are a limited number of crimes that are tracked, and it is important to note the list does not include drug-related crime or specific crimes related to firearms.
  • Only crimes that are reported are included. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2019 that only 40.9% of violent crimes and 32.5% of household property crimes were reported to authorities – and fewer than half of those crimes were solved.
  • Not all law enforcement agencies report statistics to the FBI, so the data is representative but not complete.

For some types of crime, in some states, there are major limitations to the data or serious data issues. For instance, the officially reported statistics from the FBI in 2019 and 2020 have clear data issues in Pennsylvania and Alabama, to the point that we decided not to publish these data. We faithfully report all crime data as provided by the FBI, except in cases like these where the data is obviously incorrect and misleading. See the technical notes for each topic for detailed information about what suppressions we applied to this dataset.

Understanding My Community

Metopio provides curated data so you can dive deeper in understanding the places and populations you care about.

Crime is a harbinger of the health of a community. Here we used a Social Engagement Index that is a composite score measuring elements of civic engagement and social isolation, especially those that are affected by the built environment. It incorporates information about neighborhood resiliency and barriers to social engagement.

We see there is a highly significant correlation between communities with a low social engagement score and higher rates of crime – here violent crime.

Once you understand where your community is on the trend line, this gives you at least eight additional variables to investigate further.

Data at Metopio

Metopio is committed to curating verified data and providing you with what you need to make better decisions. We are continually updating and adding to our data dictionary.

If you have any questions or there are data sets that you are particularly interested in Contact us

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