This report explored, critically assessed and identified limitations of two methods official statistics and victimisation surveys that measure violence and victimisation. Official statistics provide information on selected and reported crimes made by criminal justice agencies usually police but does not provide data about unreported crimes, characteristics of victims and offenders, making official statistics unreliable. The issues of unreported crimes are considerably high ranging from 40 – 60 %. Several factors contribute to this high rate of under – reporting crimes like insignificance, personal perceptions, circumstances, fear or embarrassment. Other limitations include: over – reporting and reporting only most serious crimes that may mislead societies about real extent of committed crimes.
Victimisation surveys provide information about the crimes that are not reported to the police and not recorded in the official data. They gather information about victims and offenders such as impact of crime, relationships between victims and offenders, circumstances and reasons why crimes are not reported. However they are in limited scope and do not provide a final measure of the total numbers of crimes as they gather information only on certain crimes and certain groups while excluding others. Other limitations include: under – reporting because people might be reluctant to disclosure information or too embarrassed, as well as over – reporting because people might misinterpret events considering themselves as victims while they are not. All these issues might influence accuracy, validity and reliability of victimisation surveys.
Crimes are a worldwide concern that permeate nearly every part of our life and have a huge impact on societies. They can influence people choices regarding work, school and leisure degrading the quality of life. Although controversy exists over whether violent crimes are on decrease or more widespread than in the past it is generally agreed that they form a serious problem that needs to be addressed by government and other officials. There are a lot of ways and different sources how governments and community can learn how common violent crimes are (Maxfield & Babbie, 2012). The oldest and well-known method is to use statistics or official data gathered by criminal justice agencies like police, for example data on arrests or convictions.
Other method is to rely on victimisation surveys where people are asked if they have been victims of crime. The main difference between these data gathering methods is that they measure different aspects of crime. Official data measure the number of crimes reported to authorities and are collected from individual criminal justice agencies, while victimization surveys measure criminal victimization, including crimes that are not reported to authorities and they rely on self-reports (Piquero & Weisburd, 2010). Both methods give useful information about crime trends in communities however it is important to understand that none of them provide a definitive answer to the number of victims of crime because not all crimes are officially recorded and acknowledged. Moreover data may not always show the true extent of crime because person may be a victim of a crime but he may not tell anyone about his experience. As a result police records can show that crime rates move in one direction while personal experience may indicate the opposite (Burgess, Regehr & Roberts, 2010).
There is an ongoing debate which data is best for measuring violence and victimisation: official statistics or crime victimisation surveys. One’s benefits are always set against others limitations and they are rarely used to supplement or support each other. This report will explore both methods that measure violence and victimisation, critically assess them and identify their limitations.
As it was mentioned above one of the earliest measurements of violence and victimisation are official crime statistics. Official data includes all crimes and offences that were reported or detected by police or other criminal justice agencies and as a result recorded as crimes (Gardner, 1994). This data indicate the level and nature of recorded crime, patterns of crime and criminals, represents the official response to crime and are a basis for comparing the change in crime trends over the years and locations in criminal victimisation (Burgess, Regehr & Roberts, 2010). Although the information produced by official data for measuring trends and occurrence of particular offences are important and useful, for example in developing crime reduction policies, however it should be interpreted very carefully (Maguire, Morgan & Reiner, 2007).
Critics suggest that official statistics have several limitations. Most important one is that official data report only those crimes and offences that are known to the police. The Scottish Crime and Justice Survey in 2010 estimated that only 39 – 41 % of crimes were reported and became known to the police which question the reliability of official statistics (Page et al., 2010). For a crime to be acknowledged and recorded by the police it must go through several stages: the victim or the one who saw how crime was committed must recognize that crime has occurred and report it to the police, while police have to decide if a law has been broken and whether to fill a formal report (to enter it to official police records) or just to warn or threaten the other party (Ogrodnik & Trainor, 1997). Police officers have the power to make judgement and can influence the number of crimes that are recorded, for example cases where victims are minors or mentally ill people may be ignored when officer have other more serious cases to deal with. Because each decision is based on individual perceptions and circumstances that surround the event, crime can disappear at any point in the process, for example when victim or police may decide to drop charges (Ogrodnik & Trainor, 1997).
There are a lot of other reasons why crimes do not get reported. One of them is the belief that crimes are insignificant or not important enough to report. There was a survey conducted in Dayton San Jose (1972) which showed that 60 % of all robberies, 56 % of all larceny and 40 % of all household burglaries were not reported to the police because people thought that they were ‘not serious enough’ (30 %), ‘nothing could be done’ (25%), ‘harm or loss was slight’ (10%) or because of fear of reprisal (18 %) (Skogan, 1975). Others fail to report crimes because they feel that it is too embarrassing, for example crimes like rape or sexual assault have the highest non reporting rates (88 %) (Landau, 2006).
Furthermore crimes are not reported because victim may not realize that she or he is a victim of a crime, for example in the event of fraud or when victims are children. This might happen because children may either fail to recognize themselves as victims, are too scared or cannot report it. For example children that are sexually assaulted usually are too scared or threatened to tell their experience to somebody (Cleaver et al., 2009). Because a lot of victims do not report their experiences to the police the official statistics that are gathered underestimate the number of committed crimes and the number of offenders of crime, leaving a huge gap between actual numbers of committed and reported crimes (Regoli & Hewitt, 2008).
Other limitations of official statistics are that some crimes can be reported more than others or there might be events when police record more particular crimes than usual, for example more drunk drivers or more robberies at holiday season. Moreover official statistics report only the most serious crimes (rape, murder, homicide) and do not present all relevant data, like what type of weapon was used during the forcible rape (Regoli & Hewitt, 2008). In these cases official data may mislead the communities about real crime trends (perceiving that particular crimes are increasing while others decreasing) and the impact of criminal justice policies on crime ( Piquero, & Weisburd, 2010).
Because more than a half of all victims do not report their experiences to the police there was a demand to create an alternative way of measuring victimisation. To address this issue victimisation surveys were created. First victimisation survey was conducted in 1967. Results showed that the victimization rate was two times greater than rate reported in official statistics (Regoli & Hewitt, 2008).
Victimisation surveys are very important and very useful because they gather information not only about crimes that have been reported or unreported but also covers victims’ whole experience of crime, like impact of crime on victim, characteristics of the victim, circumstances surrounding the crime (whether a weapon was used), nature of relationship between victim and offender and the number and the reasons why crimes were not reported, as well as perceptions of the level of crime generally (Siegel, 2009).
Although victimisation surveys importance is unquestionable however it should be noted that they have few limitations. They cannot provide a conclusive measure of the total number of crimes because they are focusing only on certain types of crimes, excluding others. For example crimes against children, homeless people, commercial establishments, bars, factories, political or public order crimes are not included in the survey (Ogrodnik & Trainor, 1997). Moreover the most serious crime – murder can not be included as well because murder victims can not be questioned. By excluding these crimes victimisation surveys are in limited scope because they can gather only a small part of information about committed crimes (Regoli & Hewitt, 2008).
Victimization surveys gather information only on those crimes where victim can be identified. ‘Victimless crimes’ like drug using, illegal gambling or prostitution can be under – reported because person might not consider himself as a victim of crime. For example a person bought illegal drugs and he might think that he is a customer rather than a victim. Victimisation surveys are not good to measure victimless crimes because the interviewed person cannot be easily perceived as victim (Maxfield & Babbie, 2012).
Additionally victimisation surveys might be subject to under – reporting because people might be vulnerable for particular questions such as concerning rape or sexual assault. They might under- report minor crimes, or crimes where offender is relative, friend or husband/wife. Finally people also can have difficulty to remembering details of crime (time or place) as well as difficulty of reporting unpleasant and embarrassing events (Siegel, 2009). The longer the elapsed time period and reluctance to disclose information can influence the accuracy of statistics and data might be unreliable.
Aside from the issue of under – reporting of ‘victimless’ and other crimes, victimisation surveys face an issue of over – reporting as well. The problem here is that people do not have to report crimes to legal authorities so victimisation surveys data might over report crimes that police might find unfounded and exclude from official statistics. For example if a person lives near the house where drug sales are common he might consider himself as a victim even if he do not participate in any drug deals (Maxfield & Babbie, 2012). Moreover sometimes victims might misinterpret or exaggerate some events and think of them as crimes. For example forgetting to lock the door and finding it open might be viewed as burglary attempt (Siegel, 2009).
Furthermore victimisation surveys are subject to sampling errors meaning that it might be difficult to include populations that are outside ‘normal households’ and resolve the inadequacy between sample estimates and true extent of crimes that would be produced if the whole population was surveyed. For example victimisation surveys are conducted in households, so homeless people who face a greater risk to be victimized are excluded (Regoli & Hewitt, 2008).
To conclude this report explored two methods (official data and victimisation surveys) that measure violence and victimisation by critically assesing them and identifying their limitations. Official statistics consists of all crimes that are reported or detected by police. It can be very useful in assessing the level and nature of recorded crimes and changes in crime trends. However official statistics face a few limitations that might question its reliability and validity for example it reports only those crimes (ussually most serious one) that are recorded by police and it is only a small part of all commited crimes because crimes are hugely unreported. Moreover because police officers can freely decide whether to report an event as a crime or drop it, these individual perceptions and decisions can influence the number of crimes that are recorded. Furthermore sometimes particular crimes can be over reported for example recording more thefts on Christmas and can cause a perception that particular crimes are increasing while others decreasing, while true extent of crime remains unknown.
On the other hand victimisation surveys are created to address official data and its issue of unreported crimes. They cover a much broader range of information than official data for example impact of crime on victims, circumstances, characteristics and relationships. However like official statistics victimisation surveys have few limitations as well. One of them is that surveys are in limited scope because they focus only on a certain types of crimes (those where victim can be identified), while other crimes for example ‘victimless crimes’ or murder are excluded. Victimization surveys gathered data might be subject to under – reporting because numbers can be influenced by respondent’s reluctance to answer questions, as well as bad memory, fear or embarrassment that can make statistics unreliable. Additionally victimisation surveys might be subject to over reporting when people misinterpret events. Then data will over report crimes misleading about real trends of crime. Finally victimization surveys are conducted in households and they gather information from a group of people that do not represent whole population, making it difficult to measure the true extent of committed crimes.
Burgess, A. W., Regehr, C., & Roberts, A. R., (2010). Victimology. Theories and Applications. USA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers
Cleaver, H., Cawson, P., Gorin, S., & Walker, S., (2009). Safeguarding Children – A Shared Responsibility. USA: Blackwell Publishing
Gardner, J., (1994). Use of official statistics and crime survey data in determining violence against women. In: Sumner, C., eds. (1996). International victimology: selected papers from the 8th International Symposium: proceedings of a symposium. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, pp.149-156. Available from:
http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/previous%20series/proceedings/1-27/~/media/publications/proceedings/27/gardner.ashx [Accessed 30.09.2012]
Landau, T., (2006). Challenging Notions – Critical Victimology in Canada. Canada: Canadian Scholar’s Press Inc
Maguire, M., Morgan, R., & Reiner, R., (2007). The Oxford Handbook of Criminology.
[4th Edition]. UK: Oxford University Press
Maxfield, M.G., & Babbie, E.R., (2012). Basics of Research Methods for Criminal Justice and Criminology. [3rd Edition]. USA: Wadsworth
Ogrodnik, L., & Trainor, C., (1997). An Overview of the Differences between Police – Reported and Victim – Reported Crime, 1997. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.
Available from: http://www.fact.on.ca/Info/vac/85542xie.pdf [Accessed 01.10.2012]
Page, L., MacLeod, P., Kinver, A., Iliasov, A., & Yoon, P., (2010). 2009/10 Scottish crime and justice survey: main findings. Scottish Government Social Research. Available from: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/254430/0107182.pdf [Accessed 30.09.2012]
Piquero, R. A., & Weisburd, D., (2010). Handbook of Quantitative Criminology. USA: Springer
Regoli, R. M., & Hewitt, J.D., (2008). Exploring Criminal Justice. USA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers
Siegel, L.J., (2009). Criminology. [10th Edition]. USA: Wadsworth
Skogan, W. G., (1975). Measurement problems in official and survey crime rates. Journal of Criminal Justice. [Online]. 3, pp. 17 – 32. Available from:
http://www.skogan.org/files/Measurement_Problems_Official_Survey_Crime_Rates.pdf [Accessed 01.10.2012]