Epidemiology of Crime in the United States

Part 2. FBI Uniform Crime Reports

Regional Variations in Crime Rates

One of the most common uses of UCR data on offenses known to police is comparison of crime rates in different areas of the United States. For instance, a number of studies have examined how official rates of crime for metropolitan areas in the U.S. vary as a function of economic inequality, racial composition, unemployment rate, and other structural factors that theorists like Merton have linked to criminal behavior. Other researchers have used UCR data to focus on cultural influences on crime, such as studies arguing that there is a regional "subculture of violence" in the South as evidenced by the traditionally high rate of homicide in this region. As shown in the following table based on 2005 UCR data, the Southern states no longer stand out overall with particularly high rates of violent crime. Four offenses that comprise the UCR Index of Violent Crime--murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault--are not markedly higher in the South than in the United States as a whole. For instance, the rate of murder in the South is only slightly higher than the rest of the U.S. at 6.6 per 100,000 versus 5.6 per 100,000 population. However, within the Southern region, the state of Florida and, especially, the city of Tallahassee show extremely high rates for violent crimes other than murder. In particular, the rate of rapes known to police is two-and-a-half times higher in Tallahassee, with a rate of 82.8 per 100,000, than it is in the rest of the South or the U.S. Similarly, rates of aggravated assault are quite high in Tallahassee and Florida as compared to the South or the U.S. What factors do you think contribute to these high rates of interpersonal violence in Tallahassee and the rest of Florida?

The other three crimes shown in this table--burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft--make up the UCR Index of Property Crime. Here, too, the State of Florida and the city of Tallahassee emerge as areas of especially high crime rates. In general, burglary and larceny-theft are by far the most common crimes reported to police even though they receive relatively little attention in the media. You might also notice that the FBI index of property crime excludes some other materialistic crimes like price fixing, tax evasion, and consumer fraud that are committed by high-status individuals in the course of their business practices--the so-called "white collar crimes." In subsequent units, we will examine the problems of materialistic crime and corporate deviance more closely.

FBI UCR Offenses Known to Police per 100,000 Population by Region, 2005
Aggravated Assault
Motor Vehicle Theft
United States
31.7 140.7 291.1 726.7 2,286.3 416.7
33.1 148.4 354.5 898.1 2,601.7 383.3
37.1 169.4 496.6 926.3 2,658.3 423.3
82.8 241.0 698.7 1,632.2 3,241.4 445.8

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States (http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius/)

Trends in Violent Crime

One of the main attractions of the FBI uniform crime reporting system is its longevity. The UCR has data going back three-quarters of a century thereby allowing social scientists to examine the patterning and potential causes of longitudinal variations in crime. The following graph shows how the FBI Violent Crime Index (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) has fluctuated since 1960. It is important to keep in mind that the relatively common crime of aggravated assault accounts for well over half of the offenses in this combined index. Criminologists have argued that much of the steep increase in the Violent Crime Index during the 1960s and 1970s may have been due to the way police handled and recorded domestic violence rather than to any substantial increases in the underlying rate of violence in the U.S. (Blumstein 2000). Some part of this increase was also due to the movement of the large "baby boom" birth cohorts through the teenage and early adult years when violent crime tends to be more prevalent. Whether this increase in the Violent Crime Index prior to the 1990s was due to increased police reporting or to increases in violent behavior is not clear. However, there is no question about the trend in violent crime since the early 1990s: it has dropped dramatically. Some forms of violent crime, like murder, have declined to the levels of the 1960s, and the overall Violent Crime Index has now dropped below 400 violent offenses known to the police per 100,000 population. We will take a closer look at this recent decline in crime in the United States after we examine a second important source of evidence on crime trends, the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Violent Crime, 1960-2011

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States (http://www.fbi.gov)

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