Each year, it’s become customary for news outlets to use the number of crimes reported at the national, state and local levels to identify trends, said Robert Brame, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina.
Those numbers, however, aren’t entirely accurate, he said. For instance, 971 burglaries were reported in Richmond County through the first five months of 2014, compared with 1,019 reported during the same span in 2013. That doesn’t necessarily mean fewer acts of burglary were committed, he said.
“I think the main issue is that with local police departments they’re reporting out only the crimes they know about,” said Brame, who researches the effects of missing data in crime reports. “That’s a subset of the crimes that are actually committed.”
Through the use of the National Crime Victimization Survey, Brame said, it’s clear the majority of crimes that happen to individuals go unreported.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Web site, about 65 percent of property crimes went unreported in 2012, compared with 58.5 percent in 2008.
The decline in reported crimes could be attributed to distrust in law enforcement, Brame said. But crimes could go unreported for other reasons. A mother might not want to report that her son stole money from her dresser out of fear he would be punished by police, for example.
“Sometimes they feel like the police couldn’t really do anything,” he said. “Sometimes the crime was attempted but wasn’t completed, so they feel like it wasn’t important enough to call the police.”
Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree said his department is aware of the amount of the missing data and is actively looking for ways to encourage residents to step forward with information no matter the severity of the crime.
Data-driven agencies, such as the sheriff’s office, rely on reported crimes to adjust patrol patterns, he said.
“Don’t get upset and say, ‘Well, the police never respond,’ ” he said. “We want you to call. That doesn’t require me to send a deputy, but I do need the data. It frees up the deputy so that they can break down violent crime, but it also gets us to start plotting for property crime and damages with the more data we get.”
Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said law enforcement agencies often look for ways to build trust with residents, hoping that rapport will encourage more reports.
“I think a lot of it has to do with trust in the culture,” he said. “Trust is something that you have to earn. Trust is something that you have to earn over a period of time, not overnight.”
Finding a solution would be a lengthy endeavor, Brame said, because fluctuation in the number of crimes reported year to year is also cause for concern.
“If the fraction of crime that wasn’t reported to police stayed the same from one year to the next, then you’d be on more solid ground in attributing the number of crimes reported to police to real crime changes,” he said. “The problem is the rate of non-reporting itself varies year to year.”
To better analyze statistics, Brame said, he wants to start looking at intervals instead of hard numbers. By having high and low thresholds, he might have a better picture of how crime is reported between and within municipalities.
“(The Bureau of Justice Statistics) is putting in place a couple of systems that I think will allow us to make real progress in this area and give us another window in addition to the police numbers – at least down to the state numbers,” he said. “I think that’s a big improvement and I think it’s only a couple of years away.”
In the meantime, Roundtree said he wants residents to use whatever medium they are most comfortable with to report a crime, be it through personal interaction or social media. And if the numbers show an increase next year, that might be a good thing, he said.
“Don’t be alarmed if it looks like your crime rate or statistics go up,” he said. “Rape is one of the most unreported crimes there is. If our numbers go up, it doesn’t mean we have more rapists. It means we have more people who have the courage to report it to law enforcement. We look at that as a positive.”