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Technology Talk

Incident-Based Reporting—The Foundation of Effective Police Operations and Management

By David J. Roberts, Senior Program Manager, IACP Technology Center, and Karen Lissy, MPH, Crime, Violence, and Justice Unit, RTI International

Law enforcement recordkeeping practices are critical tools in effective operations and management. From the earliest days of organized policing, officers have written incident reports that capture details regarding crimes, victims, offenders, suspects, locations, and the nature of injuries and losses. Incident reports provide the foundation for ongoing investigations and prosecutions, and supplemental reports (e.g., victim and witness statements, investigative notes, and evidence inventories) often contribute to the incident’s case file.1 In addition to individual incident reports and case files, police agencies have also maintained police registers or blotters, which typically provide summary details of reported incidents throughout their jurisdictions. Available to the press and the public, the police blotter provides a chronological record of incidents and police activities within a jurisdiction.

The raw data that are the natural product of law enforcement operations at state and local levels (e.g., incident reports, arrest reports, and field interviews) are the fundamental currency that drives case processing from investigation through prosecution and adjudication. Moreover, incident reports provide law enforcement administrators with crucial information to understand the nature of crime and criminality within their communities, as well as guide strategic planning and tactical deployment of increasingly scarce resources.

Advances in technology have enabled agencies to automate incident reporting, processing, crime mapping, and crime analysis. Automated records management systems (RMS) and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) applications are widely used today in law enforcement agencies of all sizes. Nearly all large police agencies reported using in-field computers or terminals by 2007 (99 percent of those serving jurisdictions of 250,000 or more residents), and even half of the smallest agencies reported using the technology (those serving jurisdictions with fewer than 10,000 residents).2 Similarly, over 90 percent of departments serving jurisdictions with 25,000 or more residents reported using CAD systems, and a majority reported using computers for intelligence gathering, crime analysis, analyzing community problems, and crime mapping.

Automated incident reports have provided expansive new opportunities for crime analysis and have supported new models of policing. It is no coincidence that crime analysis as a field has expanded exponentially in concert with the increased availability of data in an electronic format. As RMS systems and incident reporting programs were computerized, it facilitated more rigorous analysis of a jurisdiction’s incident data. No longer were departments limited to counting raw numbers, calculating descriptive statistics, or building manual pin-maps of incident locations. Building on operational information systems within the agency, chiefs and commanders could analyze and map crime in an almost infinite variety of ways. Time of occurrence, geographic location, modus operandi, and suspect and offender characteristics can be individually and simultaneously considered, plotted, or graphed for ease of interpretation, and the resulting analyses have helped to uncover trends, crime series, and neighborhood hot-spots. Moreover, the systems have supported new data-driven and evidence-based models of policing, including community policing, problem-oriented policing, intelligence-led policing, CompStat, and predictive policing.3


Beyond driving police management and operations, and supporting fundamental research on the changing nature of crime and criminality, automated incident-based reporting also supports information sharing for investigative purposes. The Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx) program functions as a central U.S. repository of incident and case reports from law enforcement agencies and other data sources, and provides analytic tools to detect relationships between people, vehicles, property, locations, and/or crime characteristics.4 N-DEx is designed to support active criminal investigations, enabling agencies to “detect relationships between people, vehicles/property, locations, and/or crime characteristics. It also supports multi-jurisdictional task forces—enhancing national information sharing, links between regional and state systems, and virtual regional information sharing.”5


Local crime incident reporting also plays a vital role in generating crime statistics for the United States at the national level. The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) are operated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and are cooperative statistical reporting initiatives that gather crime and arrest data from law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.6 The UCR collects monthly submissions of aggregate crime and arrest reports from local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies, while the NIBRS program collects detailed incident-based data on an expanded range of offenses.7 The FBI publishes three annual reports—Crime in the United States, Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted, and Hate Crime Statistics—based programs, and the underlying datasets are used extensively by other federal agencies and researchers throughout the United States and around the world.

Recognizing the limitations inherent in aggregate reporting in the summary UCR program, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the FBI funded a three-phased UCR redesign program in 1982, and began collecting NIBRS data in 1989.8 While substantial progress has been made in the implementation of the NIBRS since the publication of the data reporting specifications by the FBI in 1988 and, subsequently, approximately 28 percent of the U.S. population was covered by NIBRS reporting agencies in 2011.9

A new initiative that is being led by the BJS, with support from the FBI and other Department of Justice agencies is under way. This initiative, called the National Crime Statistics Exchange (NCS-X), is undertaking research to extend the ability to report more detailed information about crime in the United States. The goal of the NCS-X is to increase the number of agencies that report data to the NIBRS program so that nationally representative estimates of crime, which are based on detailed incident data, can be generated. Research indicates that if an additional 400 scientifically selected law enforcement agencies could begin reporting NIBRS data, then nationally representative estimates regarding the nature of crime, criminality, victimization, and law enforcement operations could be generated from NIBRS—helping policy makers evaluate the needs of their communities, assess the impact of programs and initiatives, and guide public policy development and government investments.

A team of organizations, including the IACP, is working with the BJS and the FBI to begin the initial NCS-X research. Activities include reaching out to all 50 states to learn more about their state UCR and incident-based reporting programs, making initial contacts with the 400 sampled law enforcement agencies, and introducing the NCS-X to stakeholders in the law enforcement community. The benefit of the approach contemplated by the NCS-X program is that it leverages existing incident reporting programs and data standards to efficiently harvest automated, incident-based data to augment the NIBRS program for nationally representative estimates of crime. ♦


1In addition to incident-based recordkeeping, police also create and maintain person-based criminal history records, documenting identifying characteristics and descriptive information of those arrested, charges filed, and biometric measures (such as fingerprints and mug shots). Inventories of seized and found property, pawn shop records, calls for service and dispatch records, traffic accidents, and so on, are also often created, managed, and retained.
2Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2007, NCJ 23117, (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, December 2010), 24, (accessed August 6, 2013).
The Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey is conducted every three to four years by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
3See, for example, James H. Burch II and Michael Geraci, “Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety,” The Police Chief 76, no. 8 (July 2009): 18–23, (accessed August 6, 2013); Charlie Beck and Colleen McCue, “Predictive Policing: What Can We Learn from Wal-Mart and Amazon about Fighting Crime in a Recession?” The Police Chief 76, no. 11 (November 2009): 18–24, (accessed August 6, 2013); U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Intelligence-Led Policing: The New Intelligence Architecture, by Marilyn Peterson, for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, NCJ-210681 (September 2005), (accessed August 6, 2013); Zach Friend, “Predictive Policing: Using Technology to Reduce Crime,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (April 9, 2013), (accessed August 9, 2013); “Predictive Policing: Don’t Even Think About It,” The Economist (July 20, 2013), (accessed August 6, 2013); and Jessica Renee Napier, “Data Analytics Help Michigan Police Cut Crime: Web-based Dashboard Integrates Crime and Traffic Crash Data to Improve Operational Efficiency,” Government Technology (July 30, 2013), (accessed August 6, 2013).
4In addition to incident and case reports, N-DEx also collects booking and incarceration data, probation and parole information, traffic citations, narratives, photos, and supplemental reports. For more information about the N-DEx program, see “N-DEx Overview,” (accessed August 9, 2013).
5FBI, “N-DEx: Law Enforcement National Data Exchange,” (accessed August 6, 2013).
6The Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program was conceived by the IACP in 1929, and the FBI has operated it since 1930. In the late 1970s, the law enforcement community called for a thorough evaluation of the UCR program and recommended an expanded and
enhanced data collection system that would meet the needs of 21st century law enforcement. To determine the workability of the proposed National Incident-Based Reporting (NIBRS), the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division tested the program. Participants at the national UCR conference in March 1988 approved the new system, and NIBRS was established in 1989.
7The UCR program collects information on eight index offenses (murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft of $50 or more, motor vehicle theft, and arson), while NIBRS collects offense and arrest information on 22 crime categories, spanning 46 offenses, and additional offenses for which only arrest information is reported. See, FBI, “Uniform Crime Reports,” (accessed August 6, 2013).
8See Eugene C. Poggio et al., Blueprint for the Future of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program: Final Report of the UCR Study (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics and Federal Bureau of Investigation, May 1985), (accessed August 6, 2013). FBI, NIBRS Volume 1: Data Collection Guidelines (Washington, D.C.: FBI, August 2000); FBI, NIBRS Volume 2: Data Submission Specifications (Washington, D.C.: FBI, November 2001); FBI, NIBRS Volume 4: Error Message Manual (Washington, D.C.: FBI, December 1999); and FBI, NIBRS Conversion of NIBRS Data to Summary Data (Washington, D.C.: FBI, December 2009).
9FBI, Crime in the United States 2011, (accessed August 6, 2013).

Please cite as:

David J. Roberts and Karen Lissy, "Incident-Based Reporting—The Foundation of Effective Police Operations and Management," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 64–65.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 9, September 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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