Ethical and Public Health Implications of Under-counting Violent Crime

By S. Van McCrary, Health Law & Policy Institute

There is increasing skepticism among experts about the latest federal statistics indicating another drop in violent crime. Some criminologists report that the most recent crime figures may be misleading because of significant under-counting by police who are downgrading crimes to lesser offenses. These criminologists attribute much of this under-counting to the increased pressure to keep the crime numbers low.

In a recent story on National Public Radio, a young New Orleans woman described an incident in which she was awakened in bed at 2:00 a.m. by an intruder straddling her and trying to rape her. During a struggle, the woman was stabbed 12 times. Most criminologists and crime data experts believe such an incident should be classified as an attempted rape and aggravated assault, which would be reportable to the F.B.I. as a major crime. Instead, the New Orleans police recorded the event as an aggravated burglary, a lower category of crime. The story also suggests a trend--that dozens of serious crimes in New Orleans were downgraded in such a manner. In addition, high level police officials in New York, Boca Raton, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and other cities recently have been criticized, demoted, or transferred for such "creative crime counting." A former New York City policeman, now a criminologist, commented that during his time in the police force many incidents were routinely misclassified as lower level crimes in order to keep the crime statistics down. Another problem that also contributes to the problem of under-reporting of criminal acts is the failure of many citizens to report incidents in which they were victimized.

Ethical issues are raised by this phenomenon. In many jurisdictions, promotions and pay raises for law enforcement officers are based on crime numbers--that is, how effective have law enforcement authorities been in suppressing crime. This structure creates obvious incentives for authorities to manipulate the figures to make the crime profile more favorable in their area of responsibility than in other similar areas. The ethical impact of such financial incentives can be argued to be negative in terms of compromised integrity of law enforcement authorities. Yet, paradoxically, a primary and legitimate goal of law enforcement is the reduction of crime. This sets up a difficult and complex situation where incentives to reduce crime may have the unintended consequences of only reducing reported crime. Removing such financial incentives may be one way to reduce the problem of under-counting, but a questions remains whether lowered financial incentives will reduce the personal incentive to fight crime among officers. Ways should be explored to reduce direct financial incentives to under-count crime while maintaining the motivation and overall effectiveness of law enforcement personnel and institutions. One way to achieve such a result might be to upgrade the pay scale for all law enforcement officers and disconnect promotions from reductions in reportable crimes. If law enforcement officers are adequately paid initially, there may be less need for financial incentives. Such a change might have the dual effect of maintaining a high level of motivation, while improving the accuracy of crime statistics.

In 1995, the Health Law & Policy Institute issued a report entitled, Family Violence and the Health Care System in Texas. Among the findings of this report were the following: (1) violence in general is a severe problem with effects that transcend the impact on individual victims, for example having significant impact on both the health care and social services systems; (2) governmental responses to violence are often fragmented and uncoordinated; (3) large numbers of existing cases of violence currently are not being identified and reported; and (4) many important questions that might be asked about the patterns, distribution, causes, and contexts of violence cannot yet be answered with reasonable certainty because reliable information is limited in both quantity and quality.

The recent concerns in the N.P.R. story about under-counting of crime suggest that many of the problems identified in the H.L.P.I. report have not been ameliorated. The report noted that under-counting of incidents and other deficiencies in data analysis are serious barriers to prevention of violence. Multiple existing data collection systems, including information from the fields of criminal justice and health care, are inadequate to measure violent incidents accurately and completely; these systems are not coordinated and compatible with each other. There is substantial noncompliance with reporting requirements to existing data systems. Although criminal justice data are widely available, their focus on the perpetrator does not convey an adequate picture of the emotional or financial costs to the victim or society. Considering all these factors, such systematic under-counting of violent incidents has serious public health implications in the form of greater numbers of injuries due to violent crime and a reduced ability for health care institutions properly to plan for such injuries.