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What's the real story on crime statistics?

HOW MUCH CRIME EXISTS in our country? Is the crime rate in the United States increasing, decreasing, or stable? With thousands of social scientists and agencies tracking the figures, security managers should know the answers. To fight increasing crime and demand tough legislation, security professionals must ask tough questions of law enforcement and government officials. We must also demand thorough explanations of crime statistics, since crime measurement is an imprecise practice.

For 43 years, only one main source of data for crime measurement was available. The Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which is administered by the FBI, was initiated in 1930. The program is a nationwide, volunteer, cooperative effort by city, county, and state law enforcement agencies to report crime in the United States. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) comes out every August and reports crime data for the previous year. The most recent UCR, Crime in the United States, 1990, appeared in 1991.

Data from the 1991 UCR was alarming. For instance, the murder rate, which refers to the number of people murdered per 100,000 individuals, had increased again. Murder reached an all-time high of 23,438 persons killed. Bank robberies were up from 11 to 19 percent from the previous year, depending on the area of the country. Using the concept of a "crime clock," the FBI reports that a violent crime such as a murder, rape, aggravated assault, or robbery occurred every 17 seconds and a murder every 22 minutes in 1990.

Since the UCR was the only source for crime statistics for many years, it was criticized regularly as a measure of crime by statisticians, scientists, and even police authorities. It was justifiably maligned. The major problem with the UCR was that it only compiled crimes known or reported to police.

Other problems existed too. Crime reports to the FBI were and still are voluntary. This reporting by local agencies, often self-serving, capricious, and arbitrary, was never audited. If a police department wanted more officers, it would report everything. The department would obtain the budget for more personnel, then stop reporting as thoroughly. Crime decreased as expected.

The most crime-free periods were during police strikes. Officers did not work and did not report any crime. Thus, according to the reports, little or no crime occurred.

The UCR also reports clearance rates. A clearance generally occurs when an individual is apprehended, charged, and turned over to the court for one of the crimes in UCR. Clearance rates only refer to apprehensions, not convictions. They are still usually low. Clearance rates in 1990 for auto theft consistently ran about 15 percent. This means that of every 100 car thefts reported to police, 15 individuals were apprehended.

The clearance rate is frequently used by departments to suggest they are doing a great job. However, this can be subject to manipulation. Consider the following scenario: "Want to plea bargain, Mr. Apprehended Burglar? Admit to burglarizing these 30 residences and we will |clear' a number of your cases and encourage the district attorney to view you as cooperative."

In addition in the past the UCR only listed the most serious offense when an offender had committed several crimes. If a vicious attacker robbed, raped, and then murdered a victim, this incident was reported as a single crime: murder.

Rape reporting also generated much criticism. The UCR's definition of rape is carnal knowledge of a female forcibly or against her will. Yet, the rate was calculated based on the total population, male and female. The rate is still calculated this way, but it now includes figures based on a total population of females only because more women than men are raped.

The UCR has been redesigned and a new system for reporting crime, called the National Incident-based Reporting System, will be phased in over the next 10 years. This massive effort will correct many of the UCR's problems, but it will still address only crime reported to police.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) began a national effort in 1973 to complement the UCR by conducting victim surveys. In 1990 the National Crime Victimization Survey scientifically surveyed approximately 95,000 individuals, age 12 or older, from 47,000 households. Data compiled from these telephone and interview sessions from a three-year period allows estimates of national victimization, which appear in the yearly crime victimization report. Obviously, one category is left out of the survey-murder victims are not interviewed.

Results are interesting. We knew, for example, that the UCR underreported crime. The data from the 1990 victimization survey reveals that only 38 percent of all crime is reported to police. Why is this figure so low? Many people feel that a crime is a personal or private matter. They believe that police cannot do anything to help, so they do not report it.

Now security professionals have two main sources of information on crime in the United States. What do they tell us about crime? If read carefully, the UCR seems to suggest that our country is in the midst of another crime wave.

Judges and juries are apparently locking up every criminal. According to 1990 figures in the Prisoners in 1991 BSJ bulletin, incarceration has risen 134 percent in the last 10 years. It rose 8.4 percent from 1989 to 1990. Is there really an epidemic of crime? Probably not. There are more people every year so there is more crime annually. This is reflected in the crime clock, which will never slow down if the country becomes more populated.

But victimization rates have declined dramatically. The 1990 crime victimization survey report notes that household crimes reached the lowest level since the survey began in 1973. There were only 161 crimes per 1,000 households because of a drop in the rate of household larceny. Personal and household victimizations were 24 percent. This was 1 million fewer victimizations than the previous year. Crime has declined.

The estimate that 24 percent of the nation's households were touched by crime last year may not be comforting. That is still incredible and disturbing. But it is more realistic than the picture drawn by examining only the UCR data. Both measures of crime are valuable. The revised version of the UCR will consistently provide information about crimes individuals consider serious and report to the police. It tells us what the police are doing. The victim survey gives a more complete picture of crime, especially concerning who the victims are and where they live.

In answer to the question, "How much crime occurs in the United States?" we need to say too much. Security professionals must be informed consumers of data to come up with solutions.

The next time you read that crime has risen, fallen, or remained static you should question the statement. Determining federal, state, and local policies and priorities about crime and criminals based on poor or limited data will lead to poor results. To solve the problems, we must define them accurately.

Lt. Col. Timothy A. Capron, PhD, is commander of the Nuclear Weapons Training Detachment at the Interservice Nuclear Weapons School in Kirtland, NM. He is a member of ASIS.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Capron, Timothy A.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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