How important is crime data? And, how should we measure crime?



By Masud Khabeki

To develop appropriate and accurate explanations of crime, we must first know how much crime is occurring in particular areas. Trying to explain crime without knowing how much crime occurs would be like ordering off a menu when you don’t know the price of the food you are ordering. It would be a foolish exercise that could result in nothing but confusion. In addition, information about the extent of crime committed across various demographic groups (particularly by age category, gender, and racial category) sheds light on potential causes of crime. We can safely declare that we need to know about the extent of crime in order to explain crime.

Criminologist have long grappled with effective ways to measure the extent of crime and to provide accurate crime data for policy makers, researchers, and citizens. An accurate awareness about the extent of crime serves several purposes. For example, crime and demographic trends, understanding cultures and subcultures, measuring quality of life, promoting evidence-based prevention strategies, and developing evidence-based policies. If a particular culture has no violent crime, then certain assumptions could be made about that culture. Conversely, if violence appears to be alarmingly common, then a different set of assumptions could be made. The same can be said of specific sub-cultures with different neighborhoods and communities. The extent of crime and types of crime committed by members of different subcultures tells us about those subcultures. In making this suggestion, however, we must be sure that assumptions about cultures and subcultures are based on empirical data rather a pre-conceived opinion. Also, we should recognize that cultures and subcultures change over time. Crime data and other empirical data help us understand these cultural and subcultural change over time.

Obviously, law enforcement agency can use to their advantage, if they have a true picture of happening of crime in particular area or neighborhood. The exercise would not only help to increase the ability to understand the importance of measuring crime, measuring data or the collection of statistics., but would definitely enhance the capacity of law enforcement agencies to understand when the crime is decreasing or increasing. This would also provide a picture that what type of crimes are becoming problem in a particular area and finally an awareness about the potential victims and perpetuators. This information is potentially a support for both citizens and law enforcement agencies. There are variety of ways to measure crime and the best examples we can find have been practiced in USA. The typologies of measuring crimes included, Uniformed Crime Reporting system (UCR) was developed around 1930 in US, along with National incident based reporting system (NIBRS) and The National Crime Victimization Surveys (NCVS). It is pertinent to mention that the national crime victimization surveys (NCVS) administered by the Bureau of justice statistics is a national survey of approximately 49000 to 77400 households twice a year in the united states on the frequency of crime victimization as well as characteristics and consequences of victimization.

While, the Uniform Crime Reporting System is managed by the police and has a chain of command for reporting any incident. This system includes three forms of measurement, first is the number of people arrested, second is the number of crimes reported by the victims, witnesses or police, and the number of officers.

Measuring Crime is actually may result in measuring the quality of life to some extent. If a particular area observes more crime we can assume that the people have a lower quality of life in that area. Similarly, the less crime, the higher the quality of life, interestingly, a recent study found that quality of life (for example, happiness) was tied more to signs of social disorder than to signs of physical disorder. Social disorder refers to types of relationships in a community, whereas physical disorder includes the types of disorder you can actually see (such as litter, graffiti, anti- social behavior, and the like). In effect, you used crime data to determine how to best maintain your own quality of life, given your own life circumstances.

Resultantly, we have to promote evidence-based crime prevention strategies. If certain types of crime are rare or infrequent in a particular area, then specific crime prevention strategies may do little to prevent crime in another area. Consider a gated community. If crime data demonstrate that homes are virtually never burglarized, then residents could forego the decision to purchase home security systems. In the rural town where my parents grew up nobody ever broke into their homes.  By contrast, in the home where our friends lived since 1985 in Islamabad, they have an assortment of locks on the doors and windows in response to the prevailing crime rate that seemed to indicate the neighborhood was a haven for drug offenders, prostitution, and burglaries.

The scenario has led us to consider and develop targeted and specific evidence-based crime prevention policies. By identifying the extent of crime and crime trends, practitioners and policy makers would be able to develop policies informed by actual trends rather than feelings, emotions, or opinions about crime. As a student of criminology, I always believed and have been taught that “CRIME reduction is a major purpose of criminal justice policy.” To determine whether criminal justice policies are reducing crime, we must first know how much crime is occurring.

All localities and districts across the provinces of Pakistan must introduce new strategies to measure the amount of crime through different publications and venues rather than relying on only official data. This would help to identify the non-index crime that generally have the capacity to include anti-social behavior within the neighborhood. No doubt, there is a debate that localized information is not useful in helping to understand societal crime trends and patterns, but these figures would help to understand the local issues and a technique or strategy to deal them at local level. Likewise, UCR program have also been criticized because the database does not include crimes that are not reported to the police known as the dark figures of crime. The type of reporting system failed to bring into notice an assortment of factors influencing victim’s decision to report their victimization to the police. Among other things, decisions to contact the police are influenced by the victim’s perceptions of the seriousness of the offense, prior experience with the justice system, whether an insurance agency requires the victim to contact the police, whether the victim is a stranger or an acquaintance (victims are less likely to report the crime if they know the offender), concerns about retaliation, whether the victim has cognitive impairments that prohibit him or her from contacting the police, and the fear of revictimization by the justice system. The phrase dark figure of crime is used to describe the amount of crime that is not reported to the police.

Incidentally, although the part-I and part-II offense dichotomy may misrepresent the actual seriousness of offenses, the distinction captures more accurately perceptions of seriousness, which are important given that perceived seriousness affects decisions to contact the police. Offenses defined as serious tend to be those that result in bodily injury, involve property of significant value, are committed by strangers, or involve actions of breaking and entering. Another criticism of the UCR is that law enforcement agencies routinely underreport or overreport crime when completing the monthly crime reports. In some cases, departments classify more serious crimes, such as aggravated assault, as less serious offences, such as simple assault, in an effort to lower the “official” crime rate.

Criminologists have their opinion and largely criticized the UCR for failing to provide data in a timely fashion. As the inability to provide timely crime data has serious consequences, including negatively influencing policy development, prohibiting effective planning, making it more difficult to distribute financial resources, and misinforming the public about crime. Because, the data is collected by the police, announced by the police and naturally passed by the police. It is never analyzed. Criminologists have also criticized the UCR for being limited in amount and is collected from police agencies. For example, little information is collected about the specific incident, the victim, and the dynamics surrounding the offense.


Masud Khabeki is adjunct professor criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi.