The majority of crimes committed in the United States are never reported to the police. Worse still, the crimes that are reported are usually never solved. In 2016 a miserable 42 percent of violent crime and an even more miserable 36 percent of property crime was reported to US authorities. That being said, this trend may be changing – if only slightly.
The instance of reporting serious violent crime (defined as rape or sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault) is improving. It was less likely to go unreported to the police in 2010 than it was in the year 1994, and the instances of unreported serious violent victimizations declined from 50 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 2010.
But let’s go back a step, why does it continue to happen? Why are so many crimes left unreported in a country as modern as the United States, where freedom, liberty and justice for all form key pillars of the constitution?
The perceived “triviality” of a crime, personal connection to the culprit or fear of ongoing repercussions are among some of the key reasons why serious crimes often go by unprosecuted. Some victims are so convinced by the seeming invincibility of today’s top criminal attorneys they consider it largely a futile exercise to prosecute offenders – and a costly one, too.
Rape is one example of a crime that is grossly underreported in the Unites States.
The 2010 National Crime Victimization Survey – which is conducted via household survey – counted 188,380 victims of rape and sexual assault in 2010. However, in that same year FBI data revealed only 85,593 rape or attempted rape cases were reported as crimes to local law enforcement authorities. If one does the math, it is not hard to see that something is not adding up. Perhaps it is because the NCVS does not allow for privacy when conducting in-house interviews, dissuading victims for whom the abuser is a family member from giving evidence against them. Or perhaps it is the lack of uniform definition of rape that deters some from ever prosecuting or reporting it officially.
But there are countless other reasons why rape victims rarely make official reports in the United States, some of which have been documented publically. One particularly damning report released in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice unveiled a shocking number of problems within the Baltimore Police Department, particularly in regard to its officers’ approach to dealing with sexual assault cases. One of the reasons provided by those who had reported such crimes was that often officers question sex victims in a way that lays the blame on victims themselves and suggests victims are lying by not reporting the assault immediately. Another reason listed was that detectives often made “minimal to no effort to locate, identify, interrogate, or investigate suspects,” leading victims to believe the effort and trauma involved in reporting a rape would all eventuate to nothing due to the “lax approach” of police officers, which in actual fact is often the case. One Department of Justice report claimed that a mere 17 percent of rape cases reported to the Baltimore Police Department in 2016 resulted in an arrest – about half the national average of 38 percent.
One clinical psychologist living in Missoula Country, Montana, who counseled victims of sexual assault said she had heard such horrific stories about the way the local Country Attorney’s Office dealt with rape victims that she personally opted not to press charges when she herself was assaulted. Her patients had described their encounters as “traumatic”, “judgmental” and in one case completely pointless, with detectives concluding that without there being ‘video evidence’ of an incident that took place at a party the case would be seen by prosecutors as “nothing more than a girl getting drunk at a party”.
Hate crimes are also rarely reported. In fact over a 12-year period from 2004 and 2015 more than 250,000 hate crimes in the United States went by unreported, according to a federal report released last year. It found that between 2011 and 2015 alone, 54% of violent hate crimes were not reported. The report claimed that many victims fail to report such crimes for both personal and institutional reasons, with some immigrants reluctant to get the police involved for fear of deportation – a phenomenon than has only been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s new immigration policies. For others, it is fear of losing a job, one’s family or simply distrust of the police that deters them from prosecuting.
Property crime is another that often goes unreported.
Defined as the “taking or destruction of one’s property” and considered to include burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson, there are around 40 percent of such crimes that go unreported by victims every year in the States. Often this is due to the belief that the crime is not considered “important enough” to bother law enforcement officers with. Other times, victims will have a personal relationship with the offender and be reluctant to get them in legal trouble.
Will it change, I wonder?
It appears unlikely. In fact, the withholding of information leading to criminal prosecution could become even worse if the Trump administration continues along the path it has chosen. In Trump’s first exhaustive report on crime released during his presidency, there was a worrying amount of data missing. So much so, in fact, that an organization of more than 5,000 criminal justice scholars and research professionals wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressing its concerns that this particular document, which criminologists rely on the understand national crime trends, contained 64 percent fewer data tables than it had in previous years. By sweeping such data under the rug, so to speak, the administration demonstrated it cares more about defending its public image than fighting for justice – a sentiment that no doubt impacts the final decision of a sexual assault victim already questioning whether pushing for prosecution is worth the trouble. If public official statements fail to reflect the true rate of crime in America, what chance do officials have of learning the true rate of crime.