Crime and Justice / School

Probing the Shadows


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I had to write a very short paper, almost so short I wouldn’t call it a paper. However, I thought I’d share it here, and expound a little bit, as I only have a little time. Perhaps you know that there are two methods of analyzing crime in the US, the UCR (Uniform Crime Report) which is the official accounting of seven types of crime as reported to and investigated by the police. The other one is the NCVS, and this is what I was writing about. The paper is in italics, my personal comments appear interspersed.

Probing the Shadows of Crime

In 1973, the  National Crime Victimization Survey was created in an effort to ascertain what the ‘dark figure’ of crime truly was; that is, to discover what crimes went unreported to the police, and why. The NCVS was born of an effort to improve police-community relationships and to fully understand the depth of criminal activity occurring unreported. In 1993, the methodology of the study was updated, and the survey reformatted to gain an even clearer picture with race and gender issues clarified and elaborated. (BJS, web)

The dark figure of crime is supposedly this shadowy underworld of victims, who are for whatever reason afraid to report, or don’t bother to report, various crimes. Personally, I know I’ve not reported one theft, so it’s not hard to believe this. Also, illegal aliens don’t report crime, because they are already committing a crime themselves, for instance. One criminal behavior begets others, as we see when a drug dealer is himself robbed. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the drift.

    The survey is conducted by self-reporting from approximately 93,000 households twice a year, with respondents being of the ages 12 and up. Formerly, the sample number was 43, 000, but this was increased in 2008. (BJS, web) The selected sample households stay in the survey for three years, and then a new household is selected to replace the outgoing respondents. When the household is initially inducted into the survey, the first questions are done in-person. To give a sense of scale, according to the US Census, there are approximately 115, 227, 000 households in the United States, with an average of 2.61 persons in each household. The survey covers a mere 0.08% of the households in the nation.

I have two serious issues with the methodology of the survey, to begin with. One, it is hardly a representative sampling of the US. We know the Census is not terribly accurate, and this follows those lines with selection of participating households. With this distortion in mind, the survey may well be wildly under-reporting the reality of crime. Or… The other problem that just jumps right out at me is the ‘self-reporting’ style of the survey. As anyone who has taken a survey, and in particular those of you with twisted senses of humor, or a reason to lie (see above about criminal behaviour), knows, surveys without fact checking are worth – the paper they are printed on. Plus the cost of the ink. This is the government, that is not an inconsiderable amount in and of itself.

According to the FBI, “The NCVS is the primary source of information on the characteristics of criminal victimization and on the number and types of crimes not reported to law enforcement authorities.” (Appendix IV, web) With the NCVS, an estimation is able to be extrapolated of the damage done to persons and property that is never reported. One study by Baumer and Lauritsen exploring the changes in reporting during the tenure of the study, ranging from 1973 to 2011, finds that “Overall, just 40 percent of the nonlethal violent incidents and 32 percent of the property crimes recorded in the national crime surveys during this period were reported to the police.”(Baumer, p 154)

If we set aside the concerns with the methodology of the survey, and say ‘well, those that exaggerate balance out those who don’t tell stories’ then we must look hard at why our society has a problem reporting crimes to police. Property crimes? Could it be because almost no property crimes like theft are ever even investigated, much less solved? Nah…

Works Cited:
“Appendix IV – The Nation’s Two Crime Measures.” The Nation’s Two Crime Measures. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
BAUMER, ERIC P., and JANET L. LAURITSEN. “Reporting Crime To The Police, 1973–2005: A Multivariate Analysis Of Long-Term Trends In The National Crime Survey (Ncs) And National Crime Victimization Survey (Ncvs).” Criminology 48.1 (2010): 131-185. Criminal Justice Abstracts with Full Text. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).” Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.




6 thoughts on “Probing the Shadows

  1. Back in Spokane our car got broken into several times. Once they stole my tires.

    That one actually got resolved– because one o the guys complained that he was robbed of his share of the drug money. Seriously. (Hey, pot makes you dumb.)

    They were running an identity theft ring, were caught were over a hundred stolen radios and the detective actually brought my tire to our apartment.

    Two years later, I got a letter that they’d been charged… with possession of pot… and given two years community service, suspended.

    Moved over to the damp side, and an attempt to break in to our van that caused several hundred dollars in damage got us sent to a website that did not function when we tried to report it. (Eventually found a work-around, but only by knowing web addresses and dumb designers.)


  2. Cedar Sanderson– There is one place where those stats are actually much different. That is, bicycle theft. Surprisingly enough, if you sign up with the National Bike Registry, you are far more likely (80% more likely, in fact) to get your bike back.

    If anyone in the crime solving sphere actually cares about why property crimes are a boondoggle in our country (they gave up in Britain, for example, in favor of persecuting only those willing to defend themselves when robbed) looking at the National Bike Registry and why the discrepancy in crimes resolved favorably would not be a bad thing.

    I suspect the reason being is that more bicyclists are willing to report what their bike looks like, the ID number, etc. Also, it may be that most of the bike theft folks aren’t exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. Lots of drug users and so on. But it kind of amazes me that stolen bikes are more likely to wind up returning to their owners than a stolen car. Then again, there isn’t a huge profitable market for black market bike parts.


    • It’s been forever since I looked into bike theft, but the last one I heard of counted it as solved if the item was returned– even if it just meant the pawn shop called and was willing to cut them a deal on it?


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