Section 2: Comparing police-reported crime statistics and victimization data

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In Canada, as in many other developed countries, crime is measured using a combination of both police and victim-reported information (Australian Institute of Criminology, 2008; Kershaw, 2009). Individually each source has its strengths and limitations. Together, they provide a much more robust measure of the extent and impact of criminal activity in Canadian society.

Since 1962, Statistics Canada, in co-operation with the policing community, has been collecting police-reported crime data annually through the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey. Over time and in conjunction with advances in technology, the UCR survey has progressed from an aggregate to an incident-based data source.

Until the late 1980s, the UCR provided aggregate counts of the number of incidents reported to police and the number of persons charged by type of offence. With the advent of microdata reporting, the UCR has become an "incident-based" survey, collecting in-depth information about each criminal incident. The type of information collected includes the age and sex of victims and accused persons, the relationship between them, the location and time at which a crime took place, the presence or use of a weapon, and any injuries received by the victim.

When police-reported data were first collected, it was generally felt that most crimes were being reported to police. Over time, however, criminologists began to realize that many crimes never come to the attention of the police. Hence, the term the 'dark figure' of crime was introduced. To collect data on this "dark figure" of crime – incidents that do not come to the attention of the criminal justice system – it is necessary to turn to surveys of the general population as a data source.

Since 1988, data on criminal victimization in Canada have been collected from a random sample of the general public about every five years, through the General Social Survey. The most recent data available are for 2004; the next victimization survey is being conducted in 2009. The survey asks Canadians aged 15 and older about their experiences of being a victim of crime.

Data from this survey cover eight separate criminal offences. They address the nature of the criminal victimization, the impact and consequences of crime to the victim, the extent of reporting to the police and the use of informal and formal victim services.

Each of these data sources provides a particular understanding of crime in Canada. Police-reported data have historically been used to calculate crime rates for comparison across various geographic regions. These rates reflect the volume of crime coming to the attention of the criminal justice system, and they are a reliable measure of trends in more serious crimes that are generally well-reported to police.

These data provide key information for police-reported crime analysis, resource planning and program development for the policing community. Municipal and provincial governments use the data to help make decisions about the distribution of police resources and to compare with other departments and provinces.

Victimization data, in turn, provide valuable insight into Canadians' experiences with crime and whether or not these experiences are reported to the police. These data have been used to better understand Canadians' fear of crime, their perceptions of crime and the functioning of the criminal justice system.

According to victimization data, in 2004, about two-thirds of the criminal incidents experienced by Canadians were not reported to police. The most common reason cited for not reporting was that the incident was not considered important enough. Victimization data also provide a wealth of contextual information gathered directly from victims, including details about their experiences with crime, their social and economic backgrounds and the after-effects of crime.

Neither of these sources on its own is able to provide a complete picture of criminal activity in Canada. Police-reported data capture only those crimes reported to and by police. Many factors can influence police-reported crime statistics: how the public reports crime to police; how crimes are reported by police to Statistics Canada; and, new initiatives such as new legislation or policies that may change police enforcement practices. Police-reported data are less effective at measuring trends in minor offences. Victimization data indicate that these less serious types of crimes are often under-reported.

Victimization surveys typically do not include information from the entire population, such as people under the age of 15 and individuals not living in a household, such as those who are living in an institution or who are homeless. These household surveys do not cover crimes against businesses, and are not able to cover all types of crime. They rely on respondents to remember and report incidents accurately. This type of survey is also relatively expensive. Finally, due to the sample size, there are limitations to the type of provincial and sub-provincial analysis that can be done.

Police-reported and victimization data are complementary sources that together provide a more comprehensive picture of criminal activity in Canada. While differences in the methodology between these surveys prevent direct comparison, trends can be compared for four of the eight offences studied by the GSS: sexual assault, physical assault, residential breaking and entering, and motor vehicle theft.

Between 1999 and 2004, for both the victimization and the police-reported surveys, there was no change in rates of physical assault or motor vehicle theft. While there was no change in rates for self-reported sexual assaults, police-reported sexual assaults dropped by 8%. This decrease was mainly the result of declines in level 1 sexual assaults, which represents the majority of all sexual assaults recorded by police.

It is important to note that sexual assaults are the most under-reported offence to the police. In 2004, only 8% of sexual assault incidents came to the attention of the police.

Looking at residential break-ins provides some indication of the potential impact a change in reporting can have on police-reported statistics. The rate of breaking and entering incidents dropped from 1993 to 1999 and again from 1999 to 2004, according to police-reported data. Data from the victimization survey indicate there was no statistically significant change in the rate of breaking and entering between 1993 and 1999. However, there was a statistically significant decline from 1999 to 2004. The magnitude of the drop between 1999 and 2004, however, was somewhat greater in the police-reported data (26% vs. 19%).

We also know from the victimization survey that reporting of break-ins to police has been on a downward trend since 1993: 68% of incidents were reported in 1993, 62% in 1999 and just over half (54%) in 2004. This change in reporting of residential break-ins may help explain the difference in magnitude of the drops between the two surveys.

There is room for improvement in the ways in which crime is measured. As we improve and add to the tools used to measure crime, our understanding of the nature and extent of crime in Canada improves. One limitation of victimization data is that they are currently collected every five years, while police-reported data are available annually.

This difference in timing presents some challenges in arriving at a more comprehensive picture of crime. Efforts are underway as part of a separate study to determine the feasibility of increasing the frequency of the victimization survey.

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