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Underreporting by One Agency Undermines Others

The public should demand that all crimes be recorded. Failure by police to do so trivializes the criminal acts and adversely affects other law enforcement agencies.

August 06, 2000|VERNON COOK | Vernon Cook is a criminologist who teaches part-time at Cal State Northridge and Cal Lutheran University. He is the former manager of the Ventura County Sheriff's Decision Support and Crime Analysis Unit. He lives in Thousand Oaks

Police efforts to record and report crime statistics have always been a fundamental part of British and American law enforcement.

The reporting of crime by the public in London in the mid-1600s stimulated the government to hire watchmen to guard the streets at night. By the early 1800s, England organized the watchmen into a law enforcement organization. We modeled our own law enforcement organizations on the British one.

In the 1920s, the FBI was mandated to collect from local law enforcement jurisdictions reported crime incidents. This effort capitalized upon the FBI's unique position as the top law enforcement agency with a national view.

Today the FBI collects, processes, summarizes and distributes a yearly analysis on reported crime at the county, state, regional and national levels. This information, called Uniform Crime Reports or UCR, is the foundation for news stories that periodically rank Simi Valley or Thousand Oaks as the safest cities within a particular population subset.

The FBI keeps data on eight reported crimes: murder or nonnegligent manslaughter; forcible rape; robbery; aggravated assault; burglary; larceny or theft; motor vehicle theft; and arson.

These categories were chosen for their seriousness and for the high likelihood that they would be reported to law enforcement agencies. The British would refer to them as "notifiable offenses."

Herein lies the problem with underreporting of crime by the Ventura Police Department, as recently detailed by The Times ("Ventura Police Counting Crime a New Way," July 26).

Recent statistics released by London police [prior to the peak tourist season] suggest fewer incidents of violence. Conversely, leaked but yet-to-be-officially-released Home Office figures for London show a 19% increase in violent crime. Following the contradictory crime reports, a British Broadcasting Corp. story suggested: "Recorded crime only takes account of those crimes where the police have made out a crime record for the offense investigated and reported to the Home Office. Recorded crime figures, which have been compiled by the police since 1876, give a good indication of trends, however, they can only give a partial view of the real level of crime because many crimes are either not reported to the police or, if reported, are not recorded by the police because, for example, the are too trivial or the victim decides they do not want to proceed."

Trivial, indeed. A recent CBS report concluded that "London police statistics are deeply flawed, as only one in four assaults ever gets recorded."

There are endless reasons why crimes may not be not reported to police. Most fall under one or more of these headings:

* Didn't know (that the crime occurred or that it was a crime).

* Doesn't matter (police can't or won't do anything anyway).

* Can't report it (I'm a crook, I'm here illegally or I fear retaliation).

There are also reasons why reported crimes would not be recorded by the police, but the public should demand that all crimes be recorded anyway. The fact that member of the public report crime at all suggests that they have a genuine concern, a willingness to participate in partnership with law enforcement, the predictability of a police response and a belief that something can and will be done.


In sum, the reporting of crime by the public to the police is a gauge of confidence in local law enforcement. Why then, would a local police jurisdiction elect not to take a report or not record a crime reported to or observed by them?

Most reasons fall under one or more of these headings:

* Didn't know (that the crime occurred or that it was a crime).

* Doesn't matter (as police we can't or won't do anything anyway).

* Can't (we are with the Rampart Division, taking crime reports is labor-intensive and time-consuming, there go the tourists, how else can we compete with Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley?)

The least defensible of these arguments is that documenting criminal events reported by the public somehow prevents the enforcement of the law. Nevertheless it has some merit. Taking a crime report can be labor-intensive. This is not new information. Most Ventura County law enforcement agencies can tell the public exactly how labor-intensive it is. They may not wish to, but they could tell us in hour and minute detail and reveal where, when, why, what for and by whom. And much more. These data became the basis for law enforcement agencies in the 1980s to substitute police and deputies with less costly civilian report writers at the crime scene or over the phone.

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