Delving Deeper into the Big Picture: Examining Victimization Rates

Delving Deeper into the Big Picture: Examining Victimization Rates

Statistics always must be scrutinized carefully, double-checked, and then put into perspective with some context. Victimologists and criminolo- gists look at both raw numbers and rates. Raw numbers reveal the actual numbers of victims. For example, the body count or the death toll is a raw number indicating how many people were dis- patched by murderers. Rates are the appropriate measurements to use when comparing the inci- dence of crime in populations of unequal size, such as the seriousness of the violence problem in different cities or countries, or at different periods of time.

The UCR could offer another disclaimer—but doesn’t—that the Crime Clock’s figures are unnec- essarily alarming because they lack an important measurement of risk—the recognition that there are millions of potential targets throughout the nation. The ticking away of the Crime Clock is an unduly frightening way of depicting the big pic- ture because it uses seconds, minutes, hours, or days as the denominator of the fraction. An alternative formulation could be used in the calculation: one that places the reported number of victimizations in the numerator of the fraction and the (huge) num- ber of people or possessions who are in danger of being singled out by criminals into the denomina- tor. Because there are so many hundreds of millions of residents, homes, and automobiles that could be selected by predators on the prowl, the actual chances of any given individual experiencing an incident during the course of a year may not be so high or so worrisome at all. This denominator provides some context.


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This alternative calculation—using a large denominator, “per 100,000 persons per year”— puts the problem in perspective and can yield a very different impression. In fact, the UCR does present these “crime rates”—which also could be called “victimization rates”—right after the Crime Clock in every yearly report. It seems to make a world of difference in terms of context. The implicit message when rates are calculated is almost the opposite: Don’t worry so much about being targeted. These misfortunes will probably burden someone else.

Indeed, the UCR’s yearly findings seem rel- atively reassuring, suggesting that the odds of being harmed are not at all as ominous as the Crime Clock implies. For example, the Crime Clock warned that a violent crime took place about every 27 seconds during 2013. That understandably sounds frightening because vio- lence is the part of the street crime problem that the public worries about the most. How- ever, when the UCR findings are presented with a huge denominator as a rate (per 100,000 persons per year), the figure seems less worri- some. For every 100,000 Americans, only 368 were subjected to a violent attack during 2013. Another way of expressing that same rate is that 99,632 out of every 100,000 persons made it through the year unscathed. Put still another way, only about 0.4 percent (far less than 1 per- cent) of the public complained to the police that they had been raped, robbed, or assaulted that year (or they were murdered). (Remember, however, that not all acts of violence are reported; some robberies were of stores or banks, or other commercial enterprises or offices; and also, some individuals face much higher or much lower risks of being targeted, as will be explained in Chapter 4.)

As described above, victimization rates also are computed and disseminated by another branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, the BJS. Its estimates about the chances of being harmed come from a different source—not

police files, but a nationwide survey of the pop- ulation: the NCVS. The survey’s findings are presented as rates per 1,000 persons per year for violent crimes, and per 1,000 households per year for property crimes (in contrast to the UCR’s per 100,000 per year; to compare the two sets of statistics, just move the NCVS fig- ure’s decimal point two places to the right to indicate the rate per 100,000). The NCVS’s find- ings indicated that 23.2 out of every 1,000 resi- dents age 12 and over in the United States (or 2,320 per 100,000, or 2.3 percent) were on the receiving end of an act of violence during 2013. (This estimate is substantially greater than the UCR figure because it includes those incidents that were not reported to the police but were disclosed to the interviewers; and it counts a huge number of less serious simple assaults while the UCR only counts more serious aggra- vated assaults—for definitions, see Box 3.1 below.) Furthermore, the NCVS supplies some reassuring details that are not available from the UCR: The rate of injury was about 6 per 1,000 (Truman and Langton, 2014). In other words, the victim was not physically wounded in about three quarters of the confrontations. Accentuating the positive (interpreting these sta- tistics with an “upbeat” spin), despite widespread public concern, for every 1,000 residents of the United States (over the age of 11), 977 were never confronted and 994 were not wounded during 2013.

In sum, the two sources of data—the UCR and the NCVS—published by separate agencies in the federal government strive to be reasonably accurate and trustworthy. What differs is the way the statis- tics are collected and presented. Each format lends itself to a particular interpretation or spin. The UCR’s Crime Clock calculations focus on the number of persons harmed per hour, minute, or even second. But stripped of context, these figures are unduly alarming because they give the impres- sion that being targeted is commonplace. They ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of

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Americans went about their daily lives throughout the year without interference from criminals. The rates per 100,000 published in the UCR and per 1,000 in the NCVS juxtapose the small numbers who were preyed upon against the huge numbers who got away unscathed in any given year. This mode of presenting the same facts yields a very dif- ferent impression: a rather reassuring message that being targeted is a relatively unusual event.

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