What Do We Know about Crime?


  • 1 Why we collect crime statistics
  • 2 How we measure crime
  • 3 What we know about crime from these measures
  • 4 Viewing crime based on statistics
  • 5 The crime analyst and crime statistics

Learning Objectives for Chapter 2

  • 1 Understand how crime is measured
  • 2 Gain an objective understanding of crime statistics
  • 3 Be able to discuss the pros and cons of the major measures of crime
  • 4 Understand why crime statistics are important for the crime analyst
  • 5 Understand the CompStat process and its relevance in tactical planning

Almost from the time it was organized in 1893, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (1ACP) adopted resolutions to organize or encourage national crime reporting programs. Although originally established to bring about police reform and professionalism in policing, in 1927, the IACP organized the Committee on Uniform Crime Reporting. The basic Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program was developed by this committee, and then adopted and initiated by the IACP in 1929.

It was soon recognized that such a program was too large in scope for the limited budget and staff of the IACP, and help was requested from the federal government. On June 11, 1930, Congress authorized the Bureau of Investigation, which would later be officially renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), to collect uniform crime statistics under Public Law 337, Title 28, §554. Since that time, the FBI has collected crime statistics nationally from police agencies on a voluntary basis, publishing a report—the Uniform Crime Reports—each year.

Almost simultaneously with Public Law 337, President Herbert Hoover created the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement in 1929 with George W. Wickersham as its chair. The commission was popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, and it conducted the first national study of the U.S. criminal justice system. A voluminous report, the Wickersham Commission report, released in 1931, made many recommendations—some related to the unenforceability of the Volstead Act (which had created Prohibition), some to the shortcomings of the police, but others to improvements needed in the organization of state crime reporting programs.

In 1950, the well-known criminologist Thorsten Sellin published an article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. In this article, Sellin decried the inadequate state of criminal statistics in the United States:

Nowhere in the United States today is it possible to find a well integrated and reasonably adequate system of criminal statistics, either on the local, state, federal, or national basis, in spite of the fact that we have long been deeply concerned with the serious character of our crime problem. We should no longer ignore one of the most necessary instruments available to us in our efforts to cope with criminality.

(Sellin, 1950, p. 680)

He went on to report on the various and sporadic attempts to develop national crime statistics, and he called for the passage of a Uniform Criminal Statistics Act to remedy the problem. Subsequently, the Uniform Criminal Justice Statistics Act was passed in some states, although the American Bar Association was lobbying for its passage in every state (Rosen, 1995).

It was not until 1979, however, that the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) was established under the Justice System Improvement Act of 1979, an amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The mission of the BJS is to collect, analyze, publish, and disseminate information on crime, criminal offenders, victims of crime, and the operation of justice systems at all levels of government. The BJS is a component of the Office of Justice Programs within the U.S. Department of Justice.

The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), originally called the National Crime Survey, was started in 1972 in response to a perceived need for more comprehensive information about the extent and nature of crime in the United States. In reaction to rising crime levels in our nations cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 convened the Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice (LEAA) to examine the root causes and characteristics of crime in the United States and to recommend policies and programs to address what was seen to be a growing problem. The commission found that the FBI’s UCR Program, which was based on crimes reported to law enforcement agencies, although the only program measuring the extent of crime in the nation, did not collect sufficient information to evaluate the extent and nature of the crime that was occurring. The UCR Program obtained (and still does so today) information only on crimes reported to police, and obtained little information about the characteristics of crimes and crime victims or the impact of crime on victims.

To remedy this information void, the LEAA developed pilot studies to explore the viability' of using sample surveys to obtain data on crime, including that not reported to police. These initial experiments produced useful results, and the LEAA recommended that a national victimization survey be implemented (Presidents Commission on Law Enforcement, 1967). Ever since, the BJS, in association with the Census Bureau, has conducted a nationwide survey and publishes information on the victims of crime.

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