Reading crime data
Burglary, theft, or no crime at all? It depends where in the world you are - and which official you're talking to.
If you are trying to pin down the levels and types of crime in different countries in the area of property crimes, you've presented yourself with a real challenge - but one that a true statistics junkie will find endlessly fascinating. Property crimes, though an accepted indicator of economic health in a region or country, are among the least likely crimes to be reported and may be defined differently in different jurisdictions.
Property crimes, in general, are non-violent crimes that deprive the property owner of something of value or reduce the value of property owned. They include fraud, forgery, burglary/vandalism and various types of theft. The likelihood of a theft being reported is generally a function of how serious a theft it was, how onerous it will be to report it to authorities and the potential benefit of reporting it.
Many people use the term robbery and burglary interchangeably, but there are important differences in the two crimes and they are seldom placed in the same category of statistics.
Burglary as defined by most law enforcement agencies worldwide, is simply the act of entering a structure without authorization - breaking and entering being the most common synonym for burglary. But burglary, though it implies a theft, does not need to include a theft to be a burglary. If a burglar sneaks into your house, rifles the contents of your household tool drawer, and leaves without taking anything, he is still a burglar. If he makes off with your favorite screwdriver set in the process, he is a burglar and a thief.
Robbery on the other hand, is a direct confrontation between a would-be thief and his/her victim, during which an asset, usually money, is demanded. If a weapon is used or brandished, it is armed robbery. Robbery involves violence, or the threat of violence and is viewed by most jurisdictions, not as a property crime, but as a violent crime, even if property/money is taken during the robbery. So you can be a robber or, if a successful robber, both a robber and a thief (Kill your victim, however, and you are a murderer or, if you have a good enough attorney, a perpetrator of manslaughter. Any way you look at it, the property taken, if any, does not appear as a property crime in some recording systems.
A traumatic event like a robbery is much higher on the I'd better-report-this scale than would be a quiet burglary, which may or may not even be noticed right away.
Many officials believe that crime statistics are a better indicator of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report than of the actual commission of crimes. For instance, a well-heeled country like Denmark, where burglaries are reported at 18.3 per thousand residents, might be showing a higher crime rate than the much poorer Zambia, at .88 per thousand, simply because Zambia can't afford as many cops.
On the other hand, the difference could also be in where, in Zambia's justice system the burglaries are recorded. Different countries record the commission of crimes at different points in their criminal justice systems. Some record when a crime is originally reported. Others base their numbers on arrests for reported crimes, the filing of formal charges, or actual conviction. A few countries' submissions, as gently pointed out in a 1994 United Nations report, "... correspond to their legislative mandates, rather than to the actual state of affairs."
There are as many versions of these variables as there are countries and it's easy to see how different the number of burglary and theft reports would look in comparison to the number of convictions.
Crimes are also defined in different ways in different countries.
In the United States, where crime statistics are funneled from police agencies in municipalities and states to the Federal Bureau of Investigation via the Uniform Crime Reporting System. UCR tracks what are called the FBI index crimes, which include murder and non-negligent manslaughter, robbery, forcible rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Of these, only burglary, larceny/theft and vehicle theft are property crimes. When multiple crimes are committed in the course of one incident, only one is used for statistical reporting. Usually, but not always, this will be the most severe offense.
Across the pond, Great Britain's Home Office tracks property crime categories differently. Its officers may choose from among theft against the person, crimes against vehicles, domestic burglary, fraud/forgery, criminal damage and "other theft."
Despite these differences, both countries are among a growing number of nations worldwide who acknowledge that statistics kept by criminal justice agencies alone do not give a full picture of crime because so many incidents are unreported to officials. Consequently, many have taken to conducting some version of a victim survey to help determine how many crimes go unreported - and where and why they go unreported.
The first such survey in the United States was conducted in 1966, when officials were shocked to learn that only about one in 20 crimes were actually reported to police in Boston, Washington D.C. and Chicago. Since then, the annual National Crime Victims Survey has become a fixture in U.S. crime tracking.
Great Britain publishes its annual victimization survey side-by-side with its police-generated statistics. Startlingly, the non-report rates of vandalism, various thefts and burglary have changed little in the 25 years since the annual survey was begun. Only auto thefts were fully reported.
Victim surveys have proven such a valuable tool that the United Nations periodically produces an International Crime Victims Survey to help place worldwide law enforcement-sourced materials into context. The reporting rate of crime victims is considered one of the three prime indicators of police performance. In a victim survey, the burglary and theft rates in Zambia might look very different.
Learn more about handling statistics at NationMaster and StateMaster.
-- By Billie Jo Jannen.