Monday, September 20, 2010

Crime Reporting Questioned

Are Crime Rates Really Falling as Depicted by the UCR?

St. Louis has recently changed its method of counting property crime. The FBI suggested that multiple thefts in a single area should be counted as one crime and not the total number of thefts that occurred. This will have an impact on crime rates across the country.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, experts in policing said the questions about St. Louis' crime numbers provide more proof that so-called "Uniform Crime Statistics" aren't very uniform — or meaningful — despite the importance that people place on them.

A raw crime count doesn't provide a clear picture of a city's safety. Counting the true number of victims would "put more light on the fact that there is a serious problem," a city resident told the Post-Dispatch. "A lot of people were affected."

The data aren't good for the sake of comparison, either.

The FBI warns that one city's crime totals can't be compared fairly against another's because of differences in how totals are compiled. And when a city — like St. Louis — changes the basic way it counts crime, it could be pointless to compare today's figures to previous years, reported the Post-Dispatch.There is often a question of trust. Many U.S. police departments — New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta — have been caught deliberately under-reporting crime in the past.

The Post-Dispatch revealed in 2004 that the city police failed to notify the public after discovering an error that omitted more than 5,000 crimes from the previous year's totals, making it seem as though the city was safer than it actually was. The next year, the newspaper exposed the department's use of informal memos to keep some rapes and other crimes off the books.

Then there is the question of completeness. Cities report eight categories of serious crime to the FBI: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson. Other serious crimes, such as kidnapping, fraud, drug peddling and most white-collar crimes — as well as sex crimes against men — aren't included in the index.

Even when cities are honest about counting crime, they often have different standards for what constitutes a crime. New York City doesn't count thefts of items worth less than $1,000. Cities in Illinois don't follow the FBI's "hierarchy rule," which instructs police to count only the most serious offense in an incident. If a victim is murdered, raped and robbed, Illinois jurisdictions will count all three offenses. Cities in most other places would only count the murder.

Cities in Tennessee are ahead of their contemporaries by reporting data under a new system called the National Incident Based Reporting System. But when their data are convered to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system — standard in almost every state — there is an inflation of 3 to 5 percent, experts told the Post-Dispatch.

"There are all kinds of limitations with the UCR but, alas, it is the best we have because it is the only thing we have right now," W. Richard Janikowski, who directs a criminology research center at the University of Memphis, told the Post-Dispatch.

Then there are cities that just do it wrong.

Some fail to understand or observe a basic FBI guideline for years, and no one catches the error. Like St. Louis, Dallas discovered that it was over-counting larcenies and other property crimes, making the city's crime rate appear to be one of the nation's highest, reported the Post-Disptch.

Every year the FBI generates a great deal of attention when it discloses that crime rates are down yet again. This year the FBI reported a 5.3-percent decline in violent crime. How much weight should be given the UCR? How much of the decline can be attributed to error, deceit and manipulation?

There is a certain amount of consistency between the UCR and the National Crime Victimization Survey. The crime victimization survey is an alternative method of determining crime rates by surveying crime victims. Twice each year, data are obtained from a nationally representative sample of roughly 49,000 households comprising about 100,000 persons on the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal victimization in the United States. The survey is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau on behalf of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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