September 26, 2018
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The ‘dark figure of crime’: Why many Maine crimes go unreported

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Christopher Burns, BDN Staff
Updated:

Crime throughout Maine hit a 40-year low last year, according to the Maine Department of Public Safety’s annual crime report, which came as good news.

With the exception of drug offenses, which increased between 2013 and 2014, the total crime rate fell 13 percent. Violent crime fell 5 percent, while property crime fell 13 percent. But these figures don’t capture a complete picture of crime in Maine.

Only one in five crimes last year were reported to police, according to the 2015 Maine Crime Victimization Survey released Tuesday by the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

“I am concerned that there is still a lot [of crime] going on that we don’t know about,” South Portland police Chief Edward Googins said Tuesday at a forum at the University of Southern Maine.

When crime goes unreported, it leaves a skewed picture of how pervasive crime is in the state and can create gaps in how police deploy limited resources to prevent crime and assist victims.

Reliable data

The primary source for information about the nature and extent of crime at the national and state level is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system. In use since 1930, the FBI collects crime data from more than 17,000 state and local police departments. Police use that information to determine how to best deploy limited resources based on what crimes are most common.

A weakness of the Uniform Crime Reporting system as a measurement of the crime rate is that not all crimes are brought to the attention of police. This is what sociologists call “the dark figure of crime,” or the gap between the reported and actual crime rate in a given community.

“The actual crime problem is a lot worse than what we hear about” from the Uniform Crime Reporting system, said Steven Barkan, a sociologist at the University of Maine.

Rape and sexaul assault, for instance, are two of the most underreported crimes in the United States, so the Uniform Crime Reporting system is not a reliable indicator of the prevalence of sexual victimization, Cara Courchesne, communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, was launched in 1972 to shine a light on the dark figure of crime by producing national estimates, based on interviews with victims, on the prevalence of victimization and how much crime is not reported to police. At least 14 states, including Maine, conduct their own crime victimization survey because the national survey cannot be analyzed at the state level.

“We have to take both the [victimization] survey and the crime stats that we collect, and somewhere in the middle is a better picture, a more true picture [of the extent of crime in Maine],” Googins said Tuesday.

The ‘dark figure of crime’

The prevalence of unreported crime presents an unsettling picture compared to the statistics from the Department of Public Safety. Only 7 percent of identity theft was reported to police; 20 percent of violent crime, which includes robbery, assault, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, was reported; and 21 percent of stalking crimes was reported.

Property crime, which includes vandalism and theft of property, was most likely of all crime categories to be reported to police, with 59 percent of incidences being reported to police.

Overall, the survey found, only 23 percent of crimes were reported to police, a precipitous drop from the 2006 survey in which 53 percent of crimes were reported. The survey’s authors attribute the sharp drop to the decrease in reporting of identity theft crimes, which fell to 7 percent from 27 percent in 2006.

By far the darkest figure of crime is that for rapes and sexual assault, with at least 65 percent of rapes and sexual assault never being brought to the attention of police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Why crime goes unreported

Although the Maine Statistical Analysis Center’s survey didn’t ask victims why they chose not to report a crime, national studies offer a glimpse of the causes of underreporting.

For victims of rape and sexual assault, one of the leading reasons cited for not reporting a crime is that they dealt with it in another way or considered it a personal matter, according to a 2012 special report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A social stigma around rape and sexual assault deters victims from reporting the crime to the authorities who feel the criminal justice system may further compound their trauma, according to Courchesne.

Often, Courchesne said, this violence is inflicted by “people in the victim’s life,” such as a family member, friend, acquaintance or former intimate partner. When the offender is someone close to the victim, it is twice as likely the crime will go unreported, often because victims fear reprisal, getting the offender in trouble or even that no one will believe the allegation.

“Even though they don’t like being victimized, they don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble,” George Shaler, one of the author’s of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center’s survey, said. “Or they fear retaliation: ‘If I report this unwanted behavior, will it escalate the situation?’”

Courchesne said it’s essential sexual violence be seen as “a community issue” in order to remove the stigma and disbelief victims who come forward experience.

“We must continue to address gaps in the system to ensure that when survivors do report [the crime], they are supported and the trauma they’ve experienced is not compounded by disbelief or an inadequate response,” she said. “Until we create a safe environment for survivors of sexual violence to report the crime, [underreporting] is not likely to change.”


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