Tapping into the UCR and the NCVS to Fill in the Details of the Big Picture

Tapping into the UCR and the NCVS to Fill in the Details of the Big Picture

The two official sources of government statistics can yield useful information that answers impor- tant questions about everyday life, such as, “How often does interpersonal violence break out?” (Note that when working with statistics and rounding off numbers such as body counts and murder rates, it is easy to forget that each death represents a terrible tragedy for the real people whose lives were prematurely terminated, and a devastating loss for their families.)

The BJS’s definitions that are used by NCVS interviewers appear side by side in Table 3.1 with the FBI’s definitions that are followed by police departments transmitting their figures to the UCR. Also shown are the estimated numbers of incidents and victimization rates for 2013 derived from both data collecting programs.

Glancing at the data from the UCR and the NCVS presented in Table 3.1, the big picture takes shape. Note that the numbers of incidents and the victimization rates from the NCVS are often higher than the UCR figures for each type of offense. The main reason is that the NCVS num- bers include crimes not reported to the police, and therefore not forwarded to FBI headquarters for inclusion in the UCR.

Both sources of data expose a widely believed myth. Contrary to any false impressions gained from news media coverage and television or movie plots, people suffer from violent crimes

much less frequently than from property crimes. Every year, larceny (thefts of all kinds, a broad catch-all category) is the most common crime of all. Burglary is the second most widespread form of victimization, and motor vehicle theft ranks third. According to NCVS findings, thefts of possessions—the stealing of items left unattended outdoors plus property or cash taken by someone invited into the home, such as a cleaning person or guest—touched an estimated 10,050 out of every 100,000 households, or roughly 10 per- cent, in 2013. Fortunately, this kind of victimi- zation turns out to be the least serious; most of these thefts would be classified as petty larcenies because the dollar amount stolen was less than some threshold specified by state laws, such as $1,000). The NCVS finding about how common thefts are each year is confirmed by the UCR. Larcenies of all kinds (including shoplifting from stores in the UCR definition) vastly out- number all other types of crimes reported to police departments.

As for violent crimes, fortunately a similar pat- tern emerges: The most common is the least serious type. Simple assaults (punching, kicking, shoving, and slapping) are far more likely to be inflicted than aggravated assaults, robberies, rapes, or mur- ders. Aggravated assaults, which are intended to seriously wound or kill, ranked second in frequency on the NCVS. According to the UCR, aggravated or “felonious assaults” were the most common type of violent offense reported to the police, but that is because the UCR doesn’t monitor the number of simple assaults committed. Only the number of arrests for simple assaults, not the number of inci- dents, appears in Part II of the UCR; the NIBRS keeps track of statistics for both simple and aggra- vated assaults but a nationwide tally is not yet possible.

Because so many complicated situations can arise, interviewers for the NCVS receive instruc- tions about how to categorize the incidents victims disclose to them. Similarly, the FBI publishes a manual for police departments to follow when


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T A B L E 3.1 Estimated Nationwide Victimization Rates from the UCR and the NCVS, 2013

Crime Definition Incidents Rate (per 100,000)

FBI’s UCR Definitions

Murder The willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another; includes manslaughter and deaths due to recklessness; excludes deaths due to accidents, suicides, and justifiable homicides.

14,200 4.5

Forcible Rape The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will; includes attempts; excludes other sexual assaults and statutory rape.

80,000 25

Robbery The taking of or attempting to take anything of value from the care, cus- tody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force; includes commercial establishments and carjackings, armed and unarmed.

345,000 109

Aggravated Assault The unlawful attacking of one person by another for the purpose of inflicting severe bodily injury, often by using a deadly weapon; includes attempted murder and severe beatings of family members; excludes simple, unarmed, minor assaults.

724,000 229

Simple Assault No weapon used, minor wounds inflicted Not measured Not computed Burglary The unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft;

includes unlawful entry without applying force to residences and commercial and government premises.

1,928,000 610

Larceny-Theft The unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession of another; includes purse snatching, pocket picking, thefts from vehicles, thefts of parts of vehicles, and sho- plifting; excludes the use of force or fraud to obtain possessions.

6,004,000 1,900

Motor Vehicle Theft The theft or attempted driving away of vehicle; includes automobiles, trucks, buses, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and commercially owned vehicles; excludes farm machinery and boats and planes.

700,000 221

BJS’s NCVS Definitions

Murder Not included in the survey Not measured Not computed Rape/Sexual Assault

Rape is the unlawful penetration of a male or female through the use of force or threats of violence; includes all bodily orifices, the use of objects, and attempts as well as verbal threats. Sexual assaults are unwanted sex- ual contacts, such as grabbing or fondling; includes attempts and may not involve force; excludes molestations of children under 12.

174,000 110

Robbery The taking directly from a person of property or cash by force or threat of force, with or without a weapon; includes attempts; excludes hold-ups of commercial establishments.

369,000 240

Aggravated Assault The attacking of person with a weapon, regardless of whether an injury is sustained; includes attempts as well as physical assaults without a weapon that result in serious injuries; excludes severe physical abuse of children under 12.

633,000 380

Simple Assault The attacking of person without a weapon resulting in minor wounds or no physical injury; includes attempts and intrafamily violence.

2,047,000 1,580

Household Burglary The unlawful entry of residence, garage, or shed, usually but not always, for the purpose of theft; includes attempts; excludes commercial or governmental premises.

2,458,000 2,570 (per 100,000 households)

Theft The theft of property or cash without contact; includes attempts to take possessions and stealing by persons invited inside.

9,071,000 10,050 (per 100,000 households)

Motor Vehicle Theft The driving away or taking without authorization of any household’s motorized vehicle; includes attempts.

556,000 520 (per 100,000 households)

NOTES: All UCR and NCVS figures for incidents were rounded off to the nearest 1,000, except for murder, which is rounded off to the nearest 100. All NCVS rates were multiplied by 100 to make them comparable to UCR rates. The FBI definition of rape is the old narrow one, referred to as the “legacy” definition, not the new expanded one.

SOURCES: FBI’s UCR, 2013; BJS’s NCVS, 2013 (Truman and Langton, 2014).

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they submit records to the UCR about the crimes they are aware of that were committed in their jurisdiction. These guidelines are intended to insure that the annual crime reports are genuinely “uniform”—in the sense that the same definitions and standards are used by each of the roughly 18,000 participating law enforcement agencies. For example, all police and sheriffs’ departments are supposed to exclude from their body count of murders all cases of vehicular homicides caused by drunk and impaired drivers; accidental deaths; justi- fiable homicides carried out by officers of the law or by civilians acting in self-defense; and suicides. But some very complex situations may arise on rare occasions and need to be clarified, so guidelines for scoring them on the UCR are disseminated by the FBI. Some of these instructions appear in Box 3.1 below. (Note that local prosecutors might view these crimes differently.)

Poring over “details” like the precise wording of definitions and arguing over what should and should not be included and counted, or excluded and not monitored, may seem like a rather dry technical exercise and even a “boring” waste of time. However, definitions and the statistics derived from them can really matter. For example, consider the implications of this issue:

Police officials and women’s groups … applauded a recommendation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation subcommittee that the definition of rape used by the agency be revised. The definition, written more than 80 years ago, has been criticized as too narrow, resulting in thousands of rapes being excluded from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. The subcommittee recommends a broader defini- tion, to include anal and oral rape as well as rapes involving male victims. (Goode, 2011).

What would be the consequence of adopting the more inclusive definition? Initially, forcible rape rates as monitored by this government source would rise, reflecting a more comprehensive and accurate count of the actual amount of sexual violence in the United States. That larger statistic could result in the allocation of additional federal,

state, and local resources to fund efforts to catch and prosecute more rapists, and to provide support and assistance to a greater number of victims (Goode, 2011).

Searching for Changes in the Big Picture: Detecting Trends in Interpersonal Violence and Theft

The data in the annual UCR as well as the NCVS represent the situation in the streets and homes of America after a particular year has drawn to a close. These yearly reports can be likened to a snap- shot at a certain point in time. But what about a movie or video that reveals changes over time? To make the big picture more useful, a crucial question that must be answered is whether street crime is becoming more or less of a problem as the years roll by.

Sharp increases in rates over several consecutive years are commonly known as crime waves. Downward trends indicating reduced levels of criminal activity can take place as well. Ironically, there isn’t a good term to describe a sudden yet sustained improvement in public safety. Perhaps the term crime crash (see Karmen, 2006) captures the essence of such a largely unexpected, year- after-year downturn (just as a quick plunge in the price of shares on the stock market is called a crash, except that a “crime crash” goes on for years before it is noticeable, and then is welcomed).

During the late 1960s, a major crime wave engulfed the country, according to the FBI’s UCR, which was the only annual source of nationwide data during that decade. Since 1973, the findings of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) NCVS have provided an additional set of figures to monitor the upward and downward drifts in victimization rates. The establishment of a second, independent report- ing system to measure the amount of street crime in contemporary American society initially appeared to be a major breakthrough in terms of bringing the big picture into sharper focus. In theory, the federal gov- ernment’s two monitoring systems should support and confirm each other’s findings, lending greater credence to all official statistics shared with the


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public. But in practice, estimates from the UCR and the NCVS have diverged for particular categories of offenses during certain brief stretches of time, cloud- ing the big picture about national trends (Rand & Rennison, 2002).

The UCR measures the violent crime rate by adding together all the known cases of murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery. The

NCVS doesn’t ask about murder (a relatively small number) but it does inquire about simple assaults (a huge number). The BJS then combines all disclosed cases of simple and aggravated assault, all sexual assaults (of males as well as females), and some rob- beries (only of people, not banks or stores) into its violent crime rate. Other differences in data collec- tion methodology plus divergent definitions that

B O X 3.1 The FBI’s Instructions About How to Classify Certain Complicated Crimes: Guidelines from the Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook

Part A. Does the death of the victim fall into the category of a murder?

What if the victim…:

SITUATION 1) …is confronted by a robber or other assailant and suffers a heart attack and dies?

ANSWER: Do not count this as a murder, but simply as a robbery or as an assault (because it is not a “willful killing”).

SITUATION 2) …is a woman in the ninth month of pregnancy who is stabbed in the stomach; she survives, but the fetus dies?

ANSWER: Do not categorize this as a murder. Score this as an aggravated assault against the woman (because the definition of murder excludes deaths of unborn fetuses).

SITUATION 3) …is a firefighter or a police officer who enters a burning building and dies; later it is determined that the blaze was intentionally set by an arsonist?

ANSWER: Do not count this as a murder because it is under- stood that firefighting and police work is hazard- ous and requires taking grave risks.

SITUATION 4) …is a motorist embroiled in a road rage incident who dies because his adversary intentionally crashes his vehicle into the motorist’s car?

ANSWER: Score this as a murder. If the victim survives, then consider the incident to be an aggravated assault (the vehicle is the deadly weapon), no matter how minor the injury to the person or the damage to the car.

Part B. Is it a rape? What if the victim…

SITUATION 1) …is slipped a date-rape drug in her drink by a man who is after her, but he is unable to lure her away from her friends?

ANSWER: Count this as an attempted forcible rape, since he intended to have intercourse with her against her will (she would be incapable of giving con- sent because of her temporary mental or physical incapacity) but was thwarted by his inability to get her alone.

SITUATION 2) …is married to a man who beats her until she submits to intercourse?

ANSWER: Count this as a forcible rape. Ever since marital rape was recognized as a crime, the law no longer permits a husband to be exempt from arrest for forcing himself on his wife.

Part C. Is the incident an armed robbery? What if the victim…

SITUATION 1) …is a cashier in a store who is ordered to hand over money by a man who claims to have a weapon in his pocket but does not brandish it, so the cashier does not actually see it?

ANSWER: Score this as an armed robbery, since the robber claimed to have a weapon (or perhaps had a fake knife or gun).

SITUATION 2) …returns home and surprises a burglar, who then assaults him with a crowbar, steals valu- ables, and escapes out the door?

ANSWER: Score this as an armed robbery, since the resident was confronted and attacked by the intruder.

SOURCE: Adapted and reworded from Uniform Crime Reporting System Guidelines (FBI, 2009).

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were discussed above may help explain some of the inconsistent results in the years between 1973 and the start of the 1990s, when the two trend lines were not in synch. But one finding clearly emerges: According to both of these monitoring systems, violent crime rates “crashed” during the 1990s and have continued to drift downward, as the graph in Figure 3.2 demonstrates.

A parallel set of problems and findings arise when the changes over time in property crime rates are graphed. The UCR defines property crime to include burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larcenies against persons and households but also against commercial enterprises, government offices, and nonprofit entities. The NCVS counts burglaries, vehicle thefts, and larcenies but only if they are directed against individuals and their households. Once again, despite differing signals during the first 20 years, the takeaway message of

the graph in Figure 3.3 echoes that of Figure 3.2: Property crime rates “crashed” during the 1990s and have fallen farther during the twenty-first century.

In sum, both the FBI’s UCR and the BJS’s NCVS confirm that diminishing numbers of resi- dents of the 50 states are being affected by the social problems of violence and theft. In other words, even though each year millions of new individuals join the ranks of crime victims, the rate of growth has been slowing down for about two decades. This substantial decline in victimization rates since the early 1990s is certainly good news. But how much longer will this crime crash continue? Few social scientists, politicians, or journalists would dare declare that the “war on crime” has been won. And since the experts can’t agree about the reasons why this substantial improvement in public safety took place, if someday there is a return to the

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