National Data on Violent Crime Tells Half the Story

Every October, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) releases data from national measures of crime collected through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and through the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).* This year’s data release shows good news and bad, depending on one’s vantage. From 2010 to 2011, victimization due to violent crimes rose by 17 percent. But the rate jumped by less than the average annual variation (3.3 victimizations per 1,000, compared to 4.3 victimizations per 1,000 over the past 20 years). Overall, crime remains at historically low levels. Also, violent victimization has dropped by 72 percent since 1993. And BJS’ recent analysis of homicide arrest rates from 1990 to 2010 shows that U.S. murder arrests fell by about 50% and overall adult arrest rates for all crimes fell by roughly 20% between 2000 and 2010.

AIR Expert Patricia CampieNow for the not so good news: A scan of local law-enforcement statistics from U.S. urban centers reveals a far less sanguine picture. A recent Washington Post review of nine years of homicide crime data in the District of Columbia showed that almost 70% of these cases remain open or unsolved. Some 57% of domestic cases ended in a conviction for murder or manslaughter while only 22% of drug killings did. In Chicago, only 128 of the 433 murder cases investigated by police in 2011 ended in arrest and prosecution. In New Orleans, a study of 200 homicide cases from the 2009-2010 period found that just 49% of these crimes had been what police call “cleared.” The rest are unsolved or still pending.

So, while national crime trends continue to fall, urban centers and large counties are still grappling with a dangerous collection of violent crimes. One obstacle to clearing them is witnesses’ unwillingness to testify for fear of the consequences. In the D.C. area, police say that since 2000 at least five witnesses have been murdered after cooperating with police and another ten murders are suspected as retaliation for witness testimony. The culture of intimidation and fear in these neighborhoods, coupled with continuous exposure to violence, also boosts trauma levels among youth and families.

Over the past 15 years, both evidence-based policing practices and evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies have been developed to reduce crime effectively. Reinvesting funds from the deep end of the system (prison) to support prevention activities, the use of targeted therapeutic interventions that address individual needs, and better alignment and coordination among the behavioral health, education, child welfare, and justice systems are promising reforms that aim to reduce crime and improve community well-being.

Even with these reforms, though, the justice system still needs better ways to define and count the different types of violent crimes embedded in complicated neighborhood and family dynamics. Until one crime can clearly be differentiated from another, it’s hard to apply the right prevention or intervention strategy since that requires knowing the crime’s root causes before determining who—whether neighbors, business owners, or community bystanders—needs to be involved in the solution.

A footnote in the FBI’s UCR report warns that using national data sets to draw conclusions about local conditions could lead to “simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents.” But how do we have a national policy discussion about how to help these persistently dangerous communities without data to drive the conversation, especially if the data we do have suggest that rising crime isn’t much of an issue? And what do aggregate statistics tell us about how to make headway against crime?

A serious discussion needs to begin about the way we classify violent crimes, and the manner in which we include meaningful data about people, neighborhoods, and communities into our statistical crime equations. This vital perspective from those being impacted by persistent violent crime can provide us with information to help solve more cases and point to pathways for building stronger communities who have a clear voice and stake in the process.

* The UCR program collects data from law enforcement agencies counting violent and property crimes known to police. In 2011, this voluntary reporting program included crime data from 18,233 city, county, university and college, state, tribal, and federal agencies. NCVS, also based on voluntary reporting, collects victimization information from about 40,000 households—almost 75,000 people, including children as young as 12—each year and uses in-person interviews, follow-up surveys, and phone interviews to capture crimes that may not have been reported to or detected by police.

Dr. Patricia Campie is a principal researcher in the Human and Social Development Justice Institute at the American Institutes for Research (AIR).