Every year when the FBI publishes the Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes its report on crime victimizations, all the criminologists and crime researchers get to play what I call the Great American Crime Game. It’s a game where you take the data from the FBI and the BJS, plug it into other types of numbers and then try to figure out why crime has gone up, or gone down, or not changed at all.
The UCR is based on crimes reported to the police and, according to the FBI, aggregates this information for law enforcement agencies that cover 95% of everyone living in the United States. The BJS report, on the other hand, is compiled by conducting at least two interviews with more than 160,000 respondents living in different, but representative localities throughout the United States.
Both reports present data on what is called ‘index’ crimes which, according to the FBI, are the most serious crimes against persons or property and for which definitions of each type of crime tend to differ only slightly from state to state. The most important crime for my purposes is aggravated assault, because it is within this category that most gun violence occurs. In 2012, for example, more than 427,000 serious crimes took place involving firearms, according to the BJS, of which the majority were assaults followed by robberies, with homicides (which BJS doesn’t count) placing a very distant third.
Now that you understand where the data comes from, you too can play the Great American Crime Game. What you do is take the data and correlate it with other data, such as population, employment, education and so forth. And if a particular type of number, let’s say household income or employment correlates with crime numbers, i.e., they both go up or they both go down, then – voila! – we have an explanation for why crime is getting better, or getting worse, or whatever crime is doing.
The Great American Crime Game has been particularly popular since 1993, because that year marked the high watermark of violent crime, after which it has tumbled more than 50 percent in the following two decades. Article after article, and book after book have been published on this unprecedented drop in violent crime, all of them built around various versions of the Great American Crime Game.
There’s only one slight problem. The number of violent criminal victimizations reported by the BJS is about twice as high as the number of crimes reported by the UCR. But that’s because the FBI only publishes crime data derived from crimes reported to the police, whereas the BJS asks and counts all criminal victimizations whether they were reported or not. And they candidly admit that underreporting of serious violent crime runs at more than 50 percent. In 2012 for example, the FBI report shows 657,545 aggravated assaults, the BJS shows 996,110 in the same category.
I have been reading crime studies for years, and virtually every article and book repeats two basic maxims that are accepted up and down the line: (1). violent crime rates in disadvantaged neighborhoods are much higher than anywhere else; and (2). inner-city crime is underreported compared to reports of crime everywhere else. I can’t remember the last time I read a scholarly article on crime in which the author didn’t raise a cautionary note based on one, if not both of those views.
There’s only one slight problem. It’s not true. In fact, even though African-Americans are twice as likely as Whites to believe that the cops aren’t interested in responding to crime, the BJS report indicates that 60% of all violent crimes are reported by Blacks, whereas only 45% of violent crimes are reported by Whites. And if we drill down a little further to examine aggravated assaults with weapons, 76% of such crimes were reported by Blacks and only 49% were reported by Whites.
I’m not saying that the ghetto is safe. But the discrepancy in these numbers is so significant that it makes me wonder whether playing the Great American Crime Game has taught us much at all. On the other hand, why should I be surprised? We sent 60,000 young men to their deaths in Southeast Asia based on a naval attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place. So should we be overly concerned about the validity of a shooting or a knifing here or there?