An average of 3.3 million U.S. residents became the victims of violent crime in 2018, up by 604,000 victims from the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Startlingly, only 42.6 percent of those victims reported the incident to the police. Good data for nonviolent crimes is harder to come by, but the data suggests that only 34 percent of property crimes are reported to law enforcement officials. Crimes go unreported for a number of reasons.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
There are four main reasons why people do not report crimes: shame, fear of reprisal, lack of faith in the police system and a belief that the crime is too trivial to report.
Victims and Reporting of Crimes
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) counts both crimes that are reported and not reported to the police. Periodically, the NCVS issues a special report on the reasons why crimes are not reported – the last report was issued in 2012 for the period 2006 to 2010. Looking at the 2018 data, there are wide variances in the rates of reporting across the various categories of crime, for example:
- Over 62 percent of robberies were reported, the highest level of reporting for any crime.
- Aggravated assault was also well-reported at 60.5 percent.
- Simple assault, on the other hand, was reported less widely with only 38.4 percent of victimizations being reported to the police, followed by simple theft at 28.6 percent.
- Rape had the lowest rate of reporting at 24.9 percent.
These variances give vital clues as to why victims are not reporting their experiences to the police.
Why Don’t Victims Report to Police?
There are four main reasons why people do not report their victimization to the police.
1. They don't want anyone to know: Emotional distress has a major influence on the behavior of crime victims, including whether the victim reports the crime at all. Emotions such as anxiety, shame and depression can prompt people to keep the crime hidden or to refuse to seek help from other sources, such as counselors or family members. Generally, victims are more likely to call the police when their crimes result in physical injuries that cannot be kept secret.
2. Fear of reprisal: Reporting a crime puts the victim into contact with the criminal justice system and potentially with the perpetrator, which can be scary. Many victims who fail to report their experiences do so because they worry about the repercussions or they do not want to get the perpetrator into trouble. Victims of sexual assault and domestic violence often cite fear of reprisal as a reason for keeping their silence.
3. Believing the police could not or would not do anything: Victims who have little faith in the police system, believing it to be ineffective or inefficient, are less likely to report the crime.
4. Believing the crime is too trivial to report: Over 78 percent of vehicle thefts were reported to the police in 2018, but only 28.6 percent of petty theft crimes, such as taking cash without the victim’s immediate knowledge. This suggests that people have a perception of a hierarchy of crimes and so are much less likely to report minor crimes – those they do not believe are important enough to take to the police.
Should Victims Report Crimes?
It is entirely up to the victims whether they report a crime to the police, and clearly victims have their own reasons for not reporting. However, research by the University of Iowa suggests that victims who report their experiences to the police are 22 percent less likely to become future victims of crime than those who do not report. The figure rises to 27 percent for theft crimes. Researchers attribute the lower rate of future victimization to police action, greater victim awareness and the support that victims receive after reporting their experiences.
From a public policy perspective, failing to report a crime means that the nation's crime statistics may be grossly inaccurate and potentially misleading. This has significant consequences for policymaking and budgeting because, without proper reporting, resources could be allocated to the wrong place.