Discussion about crime rates in America tend to garner public attention and hold public interest, but many people do not know where the data comes from and how crime is measured.
At its simplest, a crime rate is a count of how many instances of criminal activity occur in society for every 100,000 people.
But how is that data collected and what is actually being measured?
There are two main reports that generate much of the discussion about crime rates in the country — the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey.
Both use different methods and collect different data, but attempt to answer the same question — how much crime is there in America?
“The main one people generally cite is the Uniform Crime Reports,” Fordham University School of Law Professor of Law John Pfaff said. “The way those work is that the police keep track of when someone makes a call in that a crime has happened.
“If I got robbed or I saw someone get robbed, I call in and that sort of shows up as an incident,” he said.
Pfaff explained the UCR measures crime that is known to police.
Every time a police department receives a report of a crime and confirms that it occurred or is witness to a crime, it gets entered into a database that is compiled with departments across the country.
“The FBI only tracks a certain small number of crimes for the Uniform Crime Reports … for reported crimes,” Pfaff said.
The FBI collects data on violent crimes – including murder, aggravated assault and rape – and property crime – including burglary, theft and arson.
The UCR does not track DUIs, drug crimes or other offenses like lower-level assaults, Pfaff said.
Cases involving DUI or drug crimes generally account for more than 40 percent of all new case filings each year in Cumberland County, according to Cumberland County Insight.
Pennsylvania State Police also maintains a database that all police departments in the state are required to report to.
The information is similar to the FBI’s crime reporting program, but is updated generally every month rather than yearly and includes a larger list of offenses.
“The information is posted to a public website where the general public can use that as a tool to see what crimes are occurring around them and to view the crime rates,” Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Adam Reed said.
The FBI and Pennsylvania State Police Uniform Crime Reporting Programs also track the clearance rate for the crimes tracked.
“An agency can mark an offense cleared if it meets a certain set of criteria,” Reed said. “It can either be cleared by an arrest or by what is known as by exceptional means.”
The Sentinel’s Cumberland County Insight tracks crimes that have been cleared by an arrest. In essence this program shows how many times criminal charges have been filed for a given crime type.
Reed said having an incident cleared by exceptional means is rare but does occur. In this case the police identify a suspect, gather enough evidence to make an arrest and identify where the suspect is but are unable to make an arrest because of situations outside law enforcement’s control.
“That could be either … your suspect dies or the victim refuses to cooperate with prosecution,” Reed said, citing two of the more common examples.
Clearance rates vary depending on the crime type. For example, nationally 61 percent of all murders were cleared in 2015, but only 13 percent of burglaries were marked as cleared, according to the FBI.
Pennsylvania Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm said when crimes that are reported do not get cleared, it can erode the trust in the criminal justice system and wreak havoc on victims.
“It’s kind of this open wound that remains,” Storm said. “And not that solving of the crime or the conviction of an offender heals that wound, but it certainly allows for a person to move through the process of healing by obtaining, or having the ability to obtain justice.”
If the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System keeps tabs on the number of crimes reported to police, what about all the offenses that go unreported?
That is where the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey comes in.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys about 90,000 households, roughly 160,000 people, to get a sense of how much crime is occurring and how much is being reported to police.
Respondents answer questions about whether they have been a victim of crime in the last year, provide details about the incident and provide information about whether they reported those victimizations to police.
Reporting victimization to police, much like clearance rates, also vary between crime types.
Offenses like aggravated assault and robbery usually have a relatively high rate, 62 percent in 2015, of being reported to police. Other crimes are generally reported to police at far lower rates.
Roughly one third of rape and sexual assault are generally reported and less than 30 percent of thefts in 2015 were reported to police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“There’s a myriad of reasons (why people don’t report crimes) and a lot of that tends to depend of the type of victimization,” Storm said. “Obviously, in sexual assaults and domestic violence there is the fear of retaliation, shame, humiliation.”
Storm said other factors like a distrust of authority, involvement in criminal activity by the victim and a societal view against contacting police can also play a role in crimes not getting reported.
“For a lot of neighborhoods or communities it’s just commonplace that you don’t call the cops. You just resolve conflict on your own, in your own neighborhood with you peers,” she said.
Pfaff noted a recent study found reporting of crimes fell dramatically in Philadelphia following a high-profile incident of use of force by police, because of the distrust that incident, and the coverage of it, generated in the community.
“Crime victims have rights,” Storm said. “Oftentimes victims don’t know they have rights unless they’re forced to know. … Oftentimes victims don’t know where to turn for help.”
Storm said every county in Pennsylvania has victim’s advocates to help support victims through the criminal justice process.
The Cumberland County Crime Victim Services can be reached by calling 240-6220.
A holistic approach
Both major measures of crime have their faults, according to Pfaff.
The UCR only tracks crimes that are reported to police and the NCVS operates on a survey method that could leave out homeless and transient individuals or others who are vulnerable to victimization.
Pfaff said the two measures should be viewed more holistically. He advised viewing the reports in context of the overall trends and not minor changes from one year to the next.
“Neither one is perfect, but they both tell … a fairly reliable story about what is going on,” he said. “… I think it still remains fair to say that crime is in fact substantially lower today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Maybe the exact crime rate may not be perfectly measured but the overall trends are being captured and are real.”