Measuring the perception of crime

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Masud Khabeki

One Friday afternoon in November 22, 2019, people in the street of a neighborhood in Rawalpindi were relaxed and about to finish a satisfied day and totally unaware that the evening would become an unforgettable and life-changing day in their lives. The street was in the heart of the city and people were settling in their homes and many still busy in their concluding activities and daily businesses. This particular day, a fight started and spilled out into the street between two groups. In no time, guns were being fired, knives were being pulled and brass knuckles and chains were being swung toward anyone and everyone at the street. This criminal activity extended to the expressway and a traffic disruption remained imposed on the citizens of twin cities. Having a reactive policing system, it took sometime as usual for the police to bring things to normalcy in the twin city and especially within the vicinity. When the police reached at the crime scene the damaged was already done as the people were terrified due to many fatal causalities. The incident spread panic in the area as the traders shut their shops while the enraged created bottlenecks at twin city interchange and blocked it for all types of traffic.

By the end of the melee, four people were dead and five were hospitalized due to serious injuries. The incident captured the attention of the members of the public and media, given that it seemed more like a Hollywood movie than an actual real-life experience. For criminal justice students, a few questions related to this incident came to the mind. How many crimes were committed? Was this one incident or dozens of incidents? How many victims were there? How many offenders were involved? Can someone be a victim and an offender in the same incident? These and other questions can be answered through an understanding of the way that criminal justice scholars measure the extent of crime. Definitely, this provide us a chance to discuss strategies for measuring the extent of crime and a focus to examine the trends and patterns uncovered through the examination of crime data.

Criminologists have long grappled with effective ways to measure the extent of crime because, an accurate awareness about the extent of crime serves many purposes including explanation of demographic trends, cultures and subcultures, quality of life, promoting evidence-based prevention strategies and developing evidence-based policies. Trying to explain law and order without knowing how much crime exist 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.

By identifying the extent of crime and crime trends, police and policy makers across the world develop their crime prevention strategies and policies based on the information of actual crime trends rather than feelings, emotions, or opinions about crime as 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. This has been ably handled at the regional headquarters of police who are responsible to maintain data about crime reported in the police stations. The data is particularly useful in helping to develop specific crime prevention and intervention strategies, but localized information is not useful in helping to understand societal crime trends and patterns. This situation needs to be corrected and many police agencies in the world have developed crime data collection strategies according to their own customs and traditions. It is intended to provide assistance with the management and operation of enforcement at every level. In recent years, this information has also become one of the most critical leading social indicators almost each of the country in the world. Everyone from municipal planners to sociologists use this information for their various planning and research purpose. For example, there are three main strategies for measuring the extent of crime across the United States i.e. Uniform Crime Reporting Program, National Crime Victimization Survey and National Incident-Based Reporting System. This methodology of collecting crime prevention data is considered best and appreciated by many criminologists. The UCR program categorized crimes as Part-I and Part-II offenses. Part-I offenses are considered as more serious crimes and are also tagged as Index Crimes, these crimes include, Murder, Forceable rape, Robbery, Aggravated Assault, Burglary, Theft, Motor vehicle-theft and arson. These crimes are considered quite serious, tend to be reported more reliably than many other crimes and are reported directly to the police and not to any other agency. While, Part-II offences are technically less serious offences, though most criminologists agree that such statement is misleading given the breadth of offences included as Part-II offences. Part-II offences generally include, simple assault, loitering, embezzlement, forgery and counterfeiting, disorderly conduct, drug offences, fraud, gambling, liquor offences, prostitution, sex offences, stolen property, vandalism, vagrancy and weapons. The UCR’s crime in the United States also reports what is known as the ‘crime clock’. The crime clock provides a general breakdown of how frequently crime occurs, assuming that crime happens with the same frequency every day of the year, at each time of day.

Several criticisms have been leveled against recording of few crimes only in every country where some kind of reporting system is in place. One of the most common criticism is that the database or reporting systems does not include crimes that are not reported to the police. People have apprehensions that an assortment of factors influences victims’ decisions to report their victimization to the police. Among other things, decisions to contact the police are influenced by (a) the victim’s perceptions of the seriousness of the offence, (b) prior experience with the justice system, (c) whether an insurance agency requires the victim to contact the police, (d) whether the victim is a stranger or an acquaintance (victim are less likely to report the crime if they know the offender), (e) concerns about retaliation, (f) whether the victim has cognitive impairments that prohibit him or her from contacting the police, and (g) 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.

While the crime reporting system in Pakistan provide only the information on only nine types of crimes including, Murder, Attempt to Murder, Kidnapping /Abduction, Dacoity, Robbery, Burglary, Cattle Theft, Other Theft and Others. By an apparent look it depicts a clear ambiguity that what is allowed to report. There are many types of crimes more recently are common both in urban and rural areas in Pakistan but never been allowed to report in the crime reporting system. This reporting system is as obsolete as the criminal justice system in Pakistan. On the basis of such ambiguous reporting system we are claiming Islamabad is safer than London, Paris, Sydney and Shanghai. The Islamabad police is claiming a decrease from 32.88 to 28.63 percent on the indigenous outdated crime index reporting system. Obviously, people do often criticize it for not including crimes specifically relating to violence against women and children. Such blind spots make our reporting system very inaccurate.

The real identification of the extent and crime trends would help practitioners and policy makers to develop policies informed by actual trends rather than feelings, emotions or opinions about crime. 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. Another criticism on our reporting system is, that law enforcement agencies routinely underreport or overreport crime when completing the monthly crime reports. In some cases, department classify more serious crimes, such as aggravated assault, as less serious offenses, such as simple assault, in an effort to lower the ‘official’ crime rate. People tend to disparage such practices, stating that, we have a right to hear precisely what’s going on. If we aren’t given the unvarnished truth, it makes it rather difficult to do what’s right for our community. Furthermore, 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.