The Nation’s Two Crime Measures
The U.S. Department of Justice administers two statistical programs to measure the magnitude, nature, and impact of crime in the nation: the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Each of these programs produces valuable information about aspects of the nation’s crime problem. Because the UCR and NCVS programs are conducted for different purposes, use different methods, and focus on somewhat different aspects of crime, the information they produce together provides a more comprehensive panorama of the nation’s crime than either could produce alone.
Uniform Crime Reports
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) began publishing information for the UCR Program in 1929, just two years after the IACP had established a committee to research the uniform reporting of crime statistics. Since September 1930, the FBI has administered the program, and it currently collects information on the following crimes: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Law enforcement agencies report arrest data for 21 additional crime categories.
The UCR Program compiles data from monthly law enforcement reports or individual crime incident records transmitted directly to the FBI or to centralized state agencies that then report to the FBI. The program thoroughly examines each report it receives for reasonableness, accuracy, and deviations that may indicate errors. Large variations in crime levels may indicate modified records procedures, incomplete reporting, or changes in a jurisdiction’s boundaries. To identify any unusual fluctuations in an agency’s crime counts, the program compares monthly reports to previous submissions of the agency and with those for similar agencies.
The UCR Program presents crime counts for the nation as a whole, as well as for regions, states, counties, cities, towns, tribal law enforcement, and colleges and universities. This permits studies among neighboring jurisdictions and among those with similar populations and other common characteristics.
The FBI annually publishes its findings in a preliminary release in the spring of the following calendar year, followed by a detailed annual report, Crime in the United States, issued in the fall. In addition to crime counts and trends, this report includes data on crimes cleared, persons arrested (age, sex, and race), law enforcement personnel, and the characteristics of homicides (including age, sex, and race of victims and offenders; victim-offender relationships; weapons used; and circumstances surrounding the homicides). Other periodic reports are also available from the UCR Program.
Many local and state law enforcement agencies participating in the UCR Program submit their UCR data via the more comprehensive National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The NIBRS provides agencies the opportunity to submit additional details about each criminal incident in 22 broad categories of offenses.
National Crime Victimization Survey
The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS’) NCVS, which began in 1973, provides a detailed picture of crime incidents, victims, and trends. After a substantial period of research, the BJS completed an intensive methodological redesign of the survey in 1992. The BJS conducted the redesign to improve the questions used to uncover crime, update the survey methods, and broaden the scope of crimes measured. The redesigned survey collects detailed information on the frequency and nature of the crimes of rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, personal larceny, household burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft. It does not measure homicide or commercial crimes (such as burglaries of stores).
Each year, the BJS personnel interview household members in a nationally representative sample of approximately 169,000 persons age 12 or older. Households stay in the sample for 3½ years. New households rotate into the sample on an ongoing basis.
The NCVS collects information on crimes experienced by individuals and households, whether or not those crimes were reported to law enforcement. It collects whether the crime type was reported to law enforcement, and it summarizes the reasons that victims give for reporting or not reporting.
The survey provides information about victims (age, sex, race, ethnicity, marital status, income, and educational level), offenders (sex, race, approximate age, and victim-offender relationship), and the crimes (time and place of occurrence, use of weapons, nature of injury, and economic consequences). Questions also cover the experiences of victims with the criminal justice system, self-protective measures used by victims, and possible substance abuse by offenders. Supplements are added periodically to the survey to obtain detailed information on topics like school crime, identity theft, contacts between police and citizens, and stalking.
The BJS published the first data from the redesigned NCVS in a BJS bulletin in June 1995. BJS publication of NCVS data includes Criminal Victimization in the United States, an annual report that covers the broad range of detailed information collected by the NCVS, and the National Victimization Analysis Tool, an online database through which users can examine victimization rates, counts, and percentages by a range of victim and crime characteristics. The BJS publishes detailed reports on topics such as intimate partner violence, workplace violence, hate crimes, and crimes against persons with disabilities. The National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan archives the NCVS data files to enable researchers to perform independent analyses.
Comparing UCR and the NCVS
Because the BJS designed the NCVS to complement the UCR Program, the two programs share many similarities. As much as their different collection methods permit, the two measure the same subset of serious crimes, defined alike. Both programs cover rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft. Rape, robbery, theft, and motor vehicle theft are defined virtually identically by both the UCR and the NCVS. (Although rape is defined analogously, in 2012 and in prior years, the UCR Program measured incidents of rape committed against women only. The NCVS measured it against both sexes.)
There are also significant differences between the two programs. First, the two programs were created to serve different purposes. The UCR Program’s primary objective is to provide a reliable set of criminal justice statistics for law enforcement administration, operation, and management. The BJS established the NCVS to provide previously unavailable information about crime (including crime not reported to police), victims, and offenders.
Second, the two programs measure an overlapping but nonidentical set of crimes.
The NCVS includes crimes both reported and not reported to law enforcement. The NCVS excludes, but the UCR includes, homicide, arson, commercial crimes, and crimes against children under age 12. The UCR captures crimes reported to law enforcement but collects only arrest data for simple assault and sexual assault other than forcible rape.
Third, because of methodology, the NCVS and UCR definitions of some crime differ. For example, the UCR defines burglary as the unlawful entry or attempted entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft. The NCVS, not wanting to ask victims to ascertain offender motives, defines burglary as the entry or attempted entry of a residence by a person who had no right to be there.
Fourth, for property crimes (burglary, theft, and motor vehicle theft), the two programs calculate crime rates using different bases. The UCR rates for these crimes are per capita (number of crimes per 100,000 persons), whereas the NCVS rates for these crimes are per household (number of crimes per 1,000 households).
Because the number of households may not grow at the same rate each year as the total population, trend data for rates of property crimes measured by the two programs may not be comparable. In addition, some differences in the data from the two programs may result from sampling variation in the NCVS and from estimating for nonresponse in the UCR.
The BJS derives the NCVS estimates from interviewing a sample. The estimates are, therefore, subject to a margin of error, which is known and reflected in the standard error of the estimate. The BJS uses rigorous statistical methods to calculate confidence intervals around all survey estimates. The BJS describes trend data in the NCVS reports as genuine only if there is at least a 90 percent certainty that the measured changes are not the result of sampling variation. The UCR Program bases its data on the actual counts of offenses reported by law enforcement agencies. In some circumstances, the UCR Program estimates its data for nonparticipating agencies or those reporting partial data. Apparent discrepancies between statistics from the two programs can usually be accounted for by their definitional and procedural differences or resolved by comparing NCVS sampling variations (confidence intervals) of those crimes said to have been reported to police with UCR statistics.
For most types of crimes measured by both the UCR and NCVS, analysts familiar with the programs can exclude from analysis those aspects of crime not common to both. Resulting long-term trend lines can be brought into close concordance. The impact of such adjustments is most striking for robbery, burglary, and motor vehicle theft, whose definitions most closely coincide.
With robbery, the BJS bases the NCVS victimization rates only on robberies reported to the police. It is also possible to remove UCR robberies of commercial establishments such as gas stations, convenience stores, and banks from analysis. When users compare the resulting NCVS police-reported robbery rates and the UCR noncommercial robbery rates, the results reveal closely corresponding long-term trends.
Each program has unique strengths. The UCR provides a measure of the number of crimes reported to law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The UCR’s Supplementary Homicide Reports provide the most reliable, timely data on the extent and nature of homicides in the nation. In addition to providing point and change estimates on criminal victimization, the NCVS is the primary source of information on the characteristics of criminal victimization and on the number and types of crimes not reported to law enforcement authorities.
By understanding the strengths and limitations of each program, it is possible to use the UCR and NCVS to achieve a greater understanding of crime trends and the nature of crime in the United States. For example, changes in police procedures, shifting attitudes towards crime and police, and other societal changes can affect the extent to which people report and law enforcement agencies record crime. NCVS and UCR data can be used in concert to explore why trends in reported and police recorded crime may differ.