Hidden Crimes


Americans are reporting a slightly higher percentage of serious violent crime to law enforcement, but there is a long way to go.

A U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics survey issued today concluded that in 2010, 42 percent of incidents in a crime category that includes rape/sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults went unreported.

As bad as that sounds, it has been worse.

In both 2009 and 1994, half of serious violent crimes weren’t reported. When simple assaults are added to the mix, 52 percent of overall violent crimes are not reported–nearly 3.4 million incidents annually.

The data are derived from the National Crime Victimization Survey, which interviewed 82,000 U.S. households in 2010 about their experiences with criminal activity. The victimization survey differs markedly from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which compiles only the totals of cases reported to law enforcement agencies.

The victimization survey gives a more accurate picture of crime in the U.S. by including estimates of unreported crimes.

Why are so many violent crimes not reported to police?

Five Reasons

The survey lists five primary reasons. Combining data for 2006 to 2010, the most common–34 percent of the total–is that victims considered the case a personal matter or chose to deal with it in another way than getting police involved.

Some 18 percent of the time, victims considered the crime not important enough to report. In 16 percent of cases, victims believed that police would not or could not help.

Fear of reprisal or reluctance to get the offender in trouble was cited in 13 percent of cases, and 18 percent said there was either another reason or not a single most important reason.

Looking at the data over a period of time, BJS determined that the percentage of cases in which victims said they didn’t report incidents because police couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything doubled from 10 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 2010.

That could have been attributed to different causes, including a decline in the number of police officers or a generally growing lack of confidence in law enforcement. It’s worth noting that the police factor was relatively small compared with several of the others.

In the 2006 to 2010 period, the highest percentages of unreported crimes were in the categories of household theft (67 percent), and rape or sexual assault (65 percent). The lowest was motor vehicle theft (17 percent), presumably because vehicle owners were required to report to collect on insurance claims.

It’s understandable that a victim might choose not to involve police in incidents on the less-serious end of the violence scale, but the report found that about 3 in 10 cases involving a weapon and an injury to the victim went unreported to police between 2006 and 2010.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Wasnhington-based contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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