Law enforcement agencies are the first representa- tives of the criminal justice system that victims encounter in the immediate aftermath of crimes. If their cases are not solved with an arrest, then police officers in metropolitan areas and sheriff’s deputies in rural areas will be the only criminal justice professionals with whom victims will have contact. Therefore, how the police handle the individuals who summon them for help during emergencies or who walk in to precinct station houses to fill out paperwork requires careful examination.

These first responders can help out in many ways. The police can arrive quickly when sum- moned and can provide on-the-spot first aid. Detectives can launch thorough investigations and solve crimes by taking suspects into custody, recov- ering stolen property, and gathering evidence that will lead to convictions in court.

Victims are direct consumers of police services. Their opinions, based on their direct experiences, can greatly influence police–community relations. Unfortunately, these “clients” or “customers” can become bitterly disappointed with the performance of law enforcement agencies ostensibly committed to “serve and protect” them if officers are slow or reluctant to respond, don’t believe their accusations, conduct superficial investigations, don’t solve their cases by making arrests, and fail to recover their stolen property.


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Reporting Incidents

Criminal justice authorities want people to “report, identify, and testify.” Officials fear that if would-be predators believe that their intended prey won’t complain to the authorities about their depredations, then the deterrent effect of the risk of getting caught and punished will be undermined. Furthermore, if the public provided more complete information about where and when crimes were committed, then crime analysts working for the police could more effectively anticipate where career criminals will strike next. In other words, victims who fail to report inci- dents actually are endangering others. Also, they forfeit important rights and opportunities, such as eligibility for services and reimbursement of losses through compensation plans, tax deductions, and insurance policies. Despite these appeals to self- interest and civic responsibility, most individuals still do not tell the authorities about incidents in which their property was stolen, and just half call on the police when they are harmed by violent perpetrators. Within each of these two broad cat- egories, certain types of incidents are more likely to be reported than others.

Of all the crimes inquired about on the NCVS, completed auto theft emerges each year as the cate- gory with the highest reporting rate (close to 90 percent of cars driven off, about 50 percent of all attempts). Most vehicle owners notify law enforce- ment agencies about their loss for several sound reasons: There is a good chance their missing cars, SUVs, and trucks will be recovered if officers are aware of the disappearance; filing a formal com- plaint is required for insurance reimbursement; and motorists do not want to be held responsible for any accidents or crimes involving their vehicles. (For example, detectives will assume that the owner was behind the wheel of a getaway car used in a bank robbery.) The lowest reporting rates were registered for thefts of household property worth less than $50. As for the category of violent crimes, robberies and aggravated assaults were reported most frequently and simple assaults least often. The only reporting rate that rises and falls substantially from year to

year is for rapes and other sexual assaults. Sometimes it approaches one-half of all incidents disclosed to NCVS interviewers, but during other years the report- ing rate tumbles to less than one-third of all rapes dis- closed to interviewers (Harlow, 1985; Rennison, 1999; Catalano, 2005; and Truman, 2011).

Differential reporting rates have been uncovered by the NCVS. Certain groups of victims are more or less likely to bring their problems to the attention of the authorities. During the 1990s, females were more inclined to report violent inci- dents than were males, and older people were more willing than younger ones (especially teenagers). Those who had never been married were less inclined to file complaints than their married or divorced counterparts. Urban residents notified their local police a little more often than suburba- nites. In general, reporting rates were higher by persons who faced violence than by those who lost property; were confronted by an armed assail- ant; attacked by a stranger; physically injured (espe- cially shot); or were harmed by someone who seemed high on drugs or alcohol. Reporting rates were relatively lower for incidents involving offen- ders thought to be gang members. Despite public misimpressions, lower-income people were some- what more willing to call the police than higher- income individuals, and black victims reported attacks more readily than white or Asian victims (Hart and Rennison, 2003).

The NCVS asks victims to explain why they did or did not report to the police the very same incidents that they are willing to disclose to survey interviewers. Different reporting rates reflect ratio- nal calculations about advantages and disadvantages that can vary from group to group (see Biblarz, Barnowe, and Biblarz, 1984; Greenberg and Ruback, 1984; Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 1988). When victims reported violent crimes, their leading reasons were “to prevent future vio- lence,” “to stop the offender,” and “to protect others.” Smaller percentages of respondents told interviewers their motivations were “to catch and punish the offender” and “to fulfill their civic duty.” When people did not file complaints, their

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most common explanations were that the incidents were “a private/personal matter,” “not important enough to involve the police,” or “some other offi- cials were notified,” and that the perpetrators were unsuccessful in achieving their intentions. Insurance coverage was not a significant factor in deciding whether or not to report incidents (Hart and Rennison, 2003; BJS, 2011).

Victimologists have long suspected that report- ing rates vary from department to department, depending on the closeness of the working rela- tionships between local law enforcement agencies and the residents they are supposed to protect and serve. Those suspicions were confirmed when the NCVS carried out a comparative study of reporting rates in 12 cities during 1998. Fewer victims of vio- lence called the cops in Spokane, Washington (31 percent), and New York City (32 percent) than in Washington, D.C. (50 percent) or Spring- field, Missouri (58 percent). A smaller percentage of the people who suffered property crimes filed com- plaints in San Diego, California (28 percent), and New York City (29 percent) than in Kansas City, Missouri (45 percent), and Savannah, Georgia (47 percent) (see Smith et al., 1999).

Note that these differential reporting rates from department to department undercut the accuracy of making city-to-city comparisons of crime rates based on the FBI’s UCR compilation of crimes known to the police. City-by-city rankings of mur- der rates can be accurate because they don’t depend on voluntary reports by victims, of course

Police departments face contradictory pres- sures. On the one hand, they want victims to come forward and share their misfortunes with the authorities, so that officers and detectives can effectively do their jobs. On the other hand, if that effort at outreach is too successful, the entire department might look inept, and individual pre- cinct commanders and squad leaders might look incompetent.

Police forces that successfully cultivate closer ties to their communities learn about a greater proportion of the crimes committed within their jurisdiction. “User-friendly” departments that have won the trust of local residents can wind up

penalized in terms of their reputations. A depart- ment that suddenly becomes victim-oriented might appear to be engulfed by a crime wave. The apparently rising crime rates could merely be the result of improving reporting rates. Ironically, departments that alienate the people whom they are supposed to protect and serve look better by comparison—they may seem to be effectively sup- pressing illegal activities, when the actual reason for the low numbers of reported incidents is that a smaller proportion of the inhabitants turn to them for help.

Commanding officers and supervisors of the robbery, burglary, and sex crimes squads also face contradictory pressures. They need a steady stream of cases to work on, but they do not want to appear to be overwhelmed or seen as ineffective. Evaluat- ing performance by using up-to-date computer- generated statistics is a foundation of the Compstat approach pioneered by the New York Police Department (NYPD) in the middle 1990s (and adopted since then by law enforcement agencies worldwide). As a result, victimization and arrest sta- tistics have been monitored as closely as companies keep track of sales and profits. Precinct commanders are largely evaluated on their ability to continuously reduce the number of crimes known to have been committed in their jurisdictions. This is a positive development because Compstat-oriented depart- ments now are constantly striving to devise more effective ways to improve public safety. However, the pressures to come to a meeting with the latest numbers of reported crimes being even lower than the last time has tempted some commanders and their subordinates to try to artificially suppress sta- tistics about criminal activities. Some ways to reduce the apparent crime rate is to discourage victims from reporting about their misfortunes, to refuse to accept their complaints into the record-keeping system, or to downgrade serious charges into minor offenses whose numbers are not so closely monitored (see Levitt, 2004; Baker, 2011; Rayman, 2012; Eterno and Silverman, 2012; and Matson and Turk, 2013). For example, the NYPD was pressured to set up a watchdog panel in 2011 to look into the numbers of reported offenses in its Compstat database after a city


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councilman declared, “I believe that the statistics were in fact being manipulated. I have spoken to many current and former police officers who unfor- tunately refused to go on the record but have cor- roborated that fact. And I’ve spoken to many civilians whose valid complaints were not accepted by the Police Department” (see Baker and Rash- baum, 2011). In an apparent response, the police commissioner sent a memo to officers telling them to make it easier for New Yorkers to report crimes and to count each complaint. Officers were instructed to fill out reports even if the complainant wouldn’t agree to be interviewed by detectives, couldn’t identify the suspect or refused to view photographs in mug books, didn’t want to press charges, and couldn’t provide receipts for items that were stolen (Parascandola, 2012).

Similar problems of brushing off would-be complainants or downplaying the seriousness of their accounts have cropped up in many other jur- isdictions. For example, in Milwaukee, the depart- ment misreported hundreds of beatings, stabbings, and child abuse cases to artificially deflate the UCR’s calculation of the violent crime rate for that city from 2009 to 2011 (Poston, 2012). In Los Angeles, 1,200 serious violent crimes were allegedly misclassified as minor offenses by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) record- keepers, according to a newspaper’s investigation (Rubin and Poston, 2014). Manipulation in the form of downgrading could have consequences for the complainants: They might not be eligible for the services and financial compensation available to certified victims of violence. Similarly, in Houston, “a pattern of deceit” to keep publicly published numbers down during 2010 was uncov- ered by investigative reporters. They unearthed sev- eral “hidden homicides”—deaths due to arson which were not counted as murders, and deaths ruled as suicides in which the deceased was shot several times. When the police department reluc- tantly reopened certain recent cases of suspicious deaths and ended up reclassifying some as murders, the next of kin of 20 deceased persons became eli- gible for victim compensation payments from a state fund (Greenblatt and Razio, 2010).

Police departments generally want recent immigrants—both those who arrived in the United States legally as well as those who did not—to report attacks upon them and to serve as witnesses for the prosecution because criminals often prefer to target them (Altman and Aguayo, 2006). For that reason, many departments do not want to be compelled to engage in the enforce- ment of federal immigration laws because that activity would undermine trust and cooperation with recent arrivals to their community (Preston, 2011). Another potential problem is that language barriers can cause confusion and conflict during stressful interactions such as emergency calls and filing complaints (as well as in stop-and-frisks, car stops, investigations, arrests, bookings, and inter- rogations). Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice has carried out about 50 routine audits of police departments that serve substantial popula- tions of inhabitants with limited proficiency in English to determine if the police are complying with civil rights laws mandating fair and equal treatment of all persons. Officers might find them- selves unable to make sense of accusations and unable to communicate their own requests or orders to disputants, complainants, and suspects. Solutions to this communication problem include having linguists on standby to translate what is said during 911 calls or at crime scenes, finding third- party bystanders to speak to victims in their native language, and hiring more multilingual officers. One particularly difficult situation involves inter- vening in domestic disputes. Officers unable to find an interpreter might refuse to accept a complaint and will fill out “uncooperative” or “refused” in the space on the form that is labeled “victim’s statement” (Rivera, 2010b). A review of the NYPD by the Justice Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2010 concluded that the depart- ment often failed to ensure that New Yorkers seeking assistance had critical access to certified interpreters if their first language was not English (most commonly, it was Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Italian). For instance, despite having many Spanish-speaking officers, the NYPD had only 12 certified Spanish interpreters on call in

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its multilingual database, one for every 75,000 Spanish-speaking residents in its jurisdiction (Baker and Rivera, 2010).

As for trends, reporting rates are supposed to go up as the years go by. Criminal justice officials launched a campaign to promote calling the police for help decades ago (see “Crime Victims Digest,” 1985). At the start of the twenty-first century, a government publication accentuated the positive by emphasizing how reporting rates, particularly for acts of violence, had risen modestly over the years (see Hart and Rennison, 2003; also Catalano, 2005). But in 2010, the BJS concluded that any progress had stalled, and no statistically significant improvements in reporting rates for violent offenses had been achieved since 2001 (Truman, 2011).

Table 6.1 shows the reporting rates for vari- ous types of crimes since the NCVS began its surveys in 1973. It shows that in 2013, the reporting rate for rapes and other sexual assaults was less frequent than when the survey began

40 years earlier (and had actually tumbled to an all time low of 23 percent in 1995 and again in 2009). However, the reporting rate for robberies was higher in 2013 than in previous years (except 2007). Aggravated assaults, motor vehicle thefts, and burglaries also were reported a little more often in 2013 than during most years in recent decades (see Table 6.1).

A victim advocacy group has argued that the public should be shocked—rather than reassured— by the stubborn persistence of relatively low report- ing rates and the spotty progress in improving them despite years of campaigns to boost them. Their interpretation accentuated the negative, pointing out that the millions of incidents that victims decide not to bring to the attention of the authorities each year reflect a continuing and widespread lack of confidence in the criminal justice system. The per- sistence of this underreporting problem can be taken as evidence that police forces across the coun- try have had only limited success over the decades in enlisting the public to cooperate more closely

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