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Analysis

DeSantis Claims Florida’s Crime is at a ‘Record Low.’ But He’s Using Incomplete Data

In announcing his presidential bid, Florida’s governor relied on data from only half of the state’s law enforcement agencies.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced his bid for the presidency on Twitter Spaces last month, he touted Florida’s low crime rate as a proud accomplishment.

“Claiming that Florida is unsafe is a total farce,” DeSantis said in the announcement. “I mean, are you kidding me? You look at cities around this country, they are awash in crime. In Florida, our crime rate is at a 50-year low.”

But his statement rests on patchy, incomplete crime data. About half of the agencies that police more than 40% of the state’s population are missing from figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) used for a state-wide estimation.

Participation in national data collection is even lower. Only 49 agencies from Florida, representing less than 8% of police departments, were included in an FBI federal database last year, according to a Marshall Project analysis. This means more than 500 police departments in Florida — including most of the largest agencies, like the Miami Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, and the St. Petersburg Police Department — are missing from the national context. Florida’s participation rate is the lowest of any state in the country.

Experts said Florida's low participation means it’s nearly impossible to compare Florida’s crime rate to other states, or to compare Florida’s current crime statistics with data from past years. “In order to talk accurately about a problem, we need to be able to define the problem correctly,” said Brendan Lantz, a criminology professor at Florida State University. “And we simply cannot do that with the existing data in Florida.”

A spokesperson from FDLE said the department had to create estimates because police agencies reported data through two systems. The department expects to use estimations for the next few years as Florida transitions out of the old data system.

“The methodology used by FDLE statisticians is statistically sound and accurately represents the trend of the crime rate in Florida,” a spokesperson responded in an email. “The methodology used by FDLE is similar to that used by the FBI.”

A spokesperson for the governor referred crime data-related questions to the state enforcement agency, and did not respond to other questions.

Florida’s data gap was partially a result of the FBI’s recent decision to modernize how it collects crime data in the country. Many law enforcement agencies were stuck in the transition from the old crime data collection system — the Summary Reporting System — to the newer National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). In previous years, nearly every police agency in Florida submitted their crime data to the state. In order to fill in the data gap, the state agency said they had to rely on estimation methods to evaluate crime rates for agencies that didn’t submit their data in 2021.

The crime data gap creates a vacuum of facts across the state and the nation, and gives politicians the space to say whatever they want about crime, said Jeff Asher, a criminologist and co-founder of AH Datalytics.

“People are already crime data illiterate, for the most part,” said Asher. “It makes it much more difficult to say, with certainty, what is happening both on a national level and also on the state level.”

Putting the crime data quality issue aside, DeSantis’ claims about Florida’s declining crime rates follow long-term national trends, and should not be a surprise to the public, according to Asher. “‘Crime is at a 50-year low’ should sort of be ‘no duh,’” he said. “Crime is falling. It's not that big of a deal.” Both property crime and violent crimes have been on the decline nationally, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a Justice Department program that surveys 150,000 households about crimes that happened to them.

In general, Florida’s crime trends align with the national one. While experts say Florida’s current crime data cannot be compared with data from past years, DeSantis is right that the state’s overall crime rate was on a downward trend before 2021. As murders spiked in cities like New York and Chicago during the pandemic, Miami and Orlando also saw increases in murders.

Crime is on the decline in Florida and nationally

Crime trends in Florida have been on par with the national crime trend: a steady decline prior to the pandemic, with an uptick in violent crime in 2020.

While the FBI’s new crime data system will eventually enable criminologists and police makers to analyze crime trends in greater detail, Florida’s low participation at both the national and state level makes it an outlier. States like California that have been slow with the transition to the new system have reached over 50% adoption.

Many law enforcement agencies in Florida said they are in the process of transitioning their data management system, though the process is usually complicated and can take years.

For example, a spokesperson from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office — the second-largest agency in the state, serving the Tampa area — said the department had already started submitting crime data to the state through the new data system, but stopped when staff noticed errors in the state dashboard. The department’s numbers on the dashboard were consistently higher than what the county submitted, the spokesperson said, and the sheriff’s office is planning to resume data submission once the state fixes the mistakes.

At the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, the state’s third-largest law enforcement agency, a spokesperson said a years-long process of switching its crime record management system is almost complete, and the new system will be online by the fall. A spokesperson from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said the agency is currently submitting data through the old system, and working on using the new system “in the future.”

It’s not just crime data. In Florida, current and former public officials pointed to examples where the DeSantis administration altered or weaponized data for political gains.

Recently, the Tampa Bay Times reported that DeSantis’ choice for Florida surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, omitted key data from a state analysis to support his claims against COVID-19 vaccination.

And last summer, DeSantis removed Andrew Warren, the twice-elected state attorney from Hillsborough County, over “neglect of duty.” The firing came after Warren pledged not to prosecute people for receiving an abortion. Warren sued DeSantis over the decision. During depositions, DeSantis’ advisors revealed that the governor’s office tried to find evidence in the state’s crime data to support the decision of firing Warren.

A federal judge ruled that the removal was unlawful, but said the court doesn’t have the authority to reinstate Warren. “[T]he controlling motivations for the suspension were the interest in bringing down a reform prosecutor — a prosecutor whose performance did not match the Governor’s law-and-order agenda — and the political benefit that would result,” the judge wrote in his decision.

Warren, who remains out of office, said Florida’s state data shows crime has been declining in the county since he took office in 2016. Less than 5% of the county population were covered in the state crime data in 2021 because major police agencies like the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office were missing, which means crime trends in Hillsborough cannot be compared with other counties in Florida.

“When there's no data, it gives people the license to say whatever they want,” Warren said.

Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.