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What Is NIBRS?

Smart NIBRS Decision-Making

By Dave Porteous

David Porteous was the NIBRS Coordinator and Trainer for the State of Connecticut. David spent considerable time in police departments across Connecticut assisting agencies in the selection, implementation, data quality checking and use of NIBRS-compliant RMS software.

NIBRS is the future, but step into it smartly.
Law enforcement is finally moving into the technology era with a standardized format for reports and data system storage and retrieval - NIBRS. There are huge possibilities for administrative applications and cross-jurisdictional data sharing ahead to use these systems for investigative uses. This is also a marketplace, and all marketers are trying to get your money. Make your decisions wisely. Uninformed decisions can keep on biting you.

Start with system-wide planning.
A comprehensive plan is the backbone of an effective agency-wide data system. Involve all stakeholders to obtain input from upper echelon, patrol commanders, the detective bureau, juvenile officers and other special units. System-wide planning avoids the trap that this CAD/RMS is only for the Records room and cultivates a recognition that data systems support every agency unit in fulfilling the agency mission. The result of this planning is both an effective blueprint for your data systems purchasing process AND a commitment to make it work agency-wide.

Get growth and flexibility features for your department.
Desirable system features include:
- customizable data elements/fields
- additional data elements in the installed system or customizable beyond a basic case report and NIBRS, such as geo codes for mapping, MO descriptors and physical features
- a data structure that provides for future growth as well as widely available learning materials by using a standard marketplace application, such as SQL.

Don't trust - verify!
This arms race slogan applies to the marketing claims of vendors, too. Verify vendor sales claims that they have NIBRS compliant systems, since many may have untested or undeveloped systems. If a software vendor does not have an agency using its software to submit full NIBRS-compliant live data to the state, which is then sent on the FBI and tests OK at the state and federal level, you may be a beta test site for that vendor. Imagine the thrill of debugging their software for months or years while your agency is implementing a new CAD/RMS.

Make your state work for you
As a law enforcement agency, you are the most important entity in the world of your state's UCR/NIBRS program. Call your staff, the people you send your monthly crime statistics to, and ask them for help. They can assist with checking on the status of the vendor's product claims and provide contacts in other departments. They also have access to an instant national communications system with all UCR/NIBRS Programs and can ask questions on your behalf.

NIBRS features you can verify yourself
Check out the product yourself. You cannot readily check the quality of the output; the state and FBI must do that. You can check the input quality and what is provided on the screens. NIBRS collects 53 types of information, called data elements, that are standard components of a complete case report. These include the incident number, date, offense, weapon, injury, property stolen, age/sex/race of the victim, offender and arrestee and so on. Each data element has specific allowable data values and choices. You can check out these aspects of your potential vendor's systems using the FBI's NIBRS Volume 1: Data Collection Guidelines, available on their Web site. Review the vendor's screens for the presence of each data element and the appropriate data values. NIBRS also has edits. Edits are the cross-checking done by the software to be sure the appropriate data elements and values are submitted for each case. For instance, a property crime, such as a burglary, requires the completion of a Property Status, a Property Description and a Value field. Another example is that a crime against a person, such as an assault, requires information on the weapon(s), injury(ies) and the relationship of the victim to the offender. Software must inform the user of the need to complete edits/required fields before the case can filed and approved. It is time-consuming, but you can verify the presence of many edits by entering sample cases and using the FBI's NIBRS Volume 4 for guidance on what to find. If you find tables, such as Property Description, that have many other data values/choices than the FBI standard items, ask the vendor to see how the added categories are collapsed into the FBI list. Each item should have a value, such as 20 for Money, so added items should have appropriate values that fit the FBI categories, a process called indexing of the data table. Be wary of claims that the data element is not present and will be derived from other data. This can only occur correctly with a couple of items, such as Number of Stolen Motor Vehicles, and even then it can result in an error if not programmed correctly.

Be a smart shopper
Get references from the state and the vendor regarding current and former users. Call all of them. Visit them. Find the true daily users in these departments and spend enough time talking with them to assess whether they are being fully honest. How easy is the system to learn? How user friendly is it for daily users? How frequently do system problems occur requiring a call for vendor assistance? How timely, friendly and effective are the vendor's technical support/maintenance staff? Would the current user buy this product again?

Money talks
Place a clause in your contract requiring substantive bonding or that payments are withheld until the state has certified that your NIBRS-compliant live data submissions are acceptable. Even after you find out that this vendor has the same software being used successfully to submit live NIBRS-compliant data elsewhere, you may still get a non-compliant product.

Assure data quality after implementation
Decide who will oversee data quality, such as Records staff, and train them. Also train select staff, such as patrol supervisors. Be alert to common offense classification issues, such as overuse of All Other categories (Location, Larceny, Property) and missing Assault offenses when a person is charged with Disorderly Conduct for assaulting a spouse. Keep in mind that your state and/or the FBI can assist with training.

Assure support and data quality with use
Cultivate system-wide support by providing access to the data so that the patrol staff, the sergeants, lieutenants, captains, the chief, sheriff, deputy sheriffs, detectives and all special units can look at case data and search the database, can use it easily and daily. This will encourage them provide accurate data.

Why get the crime classified correctly?
You need to trust your data. Other jurisdictions should also be able to trust your data, especially as data sharing becomes prevalent, regionally and statewide. When your crime data appear in the newspapers and on TV, it should be valid and reliable.

Solve crimes with NIBRS
When the data can be trusted to be complete and consistently correct, and when there is agency-wide access and use, investigative usefulness becomes common. Next comes data sharing across jurisdictions electronically, which is only possible with a standard data set - NIBRS- compiled consistently according to standard criteria. Get on the data superhighway and increase your clearance.