GENERATING FEAR: THE POLITICS OF CRIME REPORTING

Professor William J.Chambliss and Justin Baer

The George Washington University

In his farewell address as president in 1960 Dwight Eisenhower warned of the dangers inherent in an all-powerful "military-industrial complex." Were there an equally honest and observant politician in the U.S. today they would warn of the emergence of an all-powerful law enforcement-industrial complex for many of the same reasons Eisenhower noted.

First, like the military after World War II, the law enforcement-industrial complex has grown faster than other governmental agencies including education Chambliss, 1992). Between 1979 and 1996 expenditures on criminal justice increased nearly four fold from 25 billion dollars to over 93 billion (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1982, 1995). The federal budget for the war on drugs increased from $1 billion in 1980 to over $13 billion for 1997. At the current rate of increased expenditures the criminal justice budget will exceed $200 billion by 2005.

The law enforcement-industrial complex is sustaining some of the fastest growing corporations and some of the most powerful lobbies in the country. The California Corrections Officers Association, for example, were the largest contributors to conservative Governor Pete Wilson's campaign.

On a local level police unions called by various non-union sounding names like the Policeman's Benevolent Society, are major contributors to political campaigns that promise more funding for law enforcement.

Second, much like the silence in the 1950's surrounding the definition of reality perpetrated by the military-industrial complex, there is almost no political, media or public opposition to criminal justice spending. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of the "crime control industry" (Christie, 1994) is that, like the military-industrial complex in the 1950's, the only source of information about the crime problem and how to solve it comes from the agencies and corporations that benefit from exaggerating and distorting the information.

What follows is an analysis of how government agencies, the media, and some social scientists systematically mislead policy makers and the general public about "the crime problem" in the United States.

Data on Crime

The extent to which the U.S. Department of Justice and its law enforcement bureaucracies, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Institutes of Justice misrepresent data on crime has not been widely acknowledged. Nor has the role of criminologists in perpetuating myths about crime been the subject of much debate within the discipline.

We will look at how data and information about crime is generated by government bureaucracies, reported in the press, and supported by some criminologists with the effect of misrepresenting "the crime problem" to politicians, lawmakers, and the general public.

The Uniform Crime Reports

The oldest established source of national data on crime rates and trends is the annual publication of the Federal Bureau Investigation: The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). These reports are based on data supplied to the FBI by local police departments.

They include a mountain of data but the two most important sets of information relative to crime rates and crime trends are "crimes known to the police" and arrests. Crimes known to the police are based on calls to police departments from citizens reporting crimes and crimes observed by police officers.

In the annual report the FBI resorts to gimmicks and tricks to make the problem of crime appear as threatening as possible. The first few pages contain a "crime clock" that claims there is a murder every 23 minutes, a forcible rape every 5 minutes, a robbery every 51 seconds, a burglary every 12 seconds, etc. (FBI, 1994: p4).

Rendering the data in this manner is. of course, designed to exaggerate the seriousness and frequency of crime. To get these alarming statements the FBI includes all kinds of alleged crimes, including attempts, that if more honestly conveyed, would not be counted. Furthermore, the number of crimes per second or minute obviously depends on the size of the population.

Imagine what a similar chart in China, India or Indonesia would look like. Such representations are not informative, they are simply political rhetoric.

The UCR is consistent in only one thing: the tendency to distort and mislead. In 1992 the front cover of the UCR showed a graph. Under the graph the words "Crime In The United States" appeared. The line of the graph went up from the bottom left hand corner to the top right hand corner. Clearly the cover was designed to depict the crime rate as accelerating rapidly. The data provided to the FBI, however, told a very different story. The crime rate for most major crimes had actually gone down. Overall this 1992 UCR shows a decline from 1991 to 1992 in the crime rate for all offenses (-4.0 per 100,000 inhabitants) and a decline in the murder/nonnegligent manslaughter (-5.1) and violent crime (-.1) per 100,000 inhabitants. To discover that the crime rate had declined, however, required looking past the cover, past the introductory statements, and past the crime clocks. Something politicians, journalists, and even many criminologists never bother to do.

Counting Crimes

The way crimes are counted is no less misleading than the graphs and clocks. The instructions from the FBI to local police departments state that if a police officer finds a dead body and believes it was murder, the event is recorded as murder.

It matters not if the next day the coroner says it was suicide or the prosecutor determines that it was justifiable homicide or accidental death. It was and remains a murder for the purposes of the Uniform Crime Reports. The instructions from the FBI to the local police departments state:

"...the findings of coroner, court, jury or prosecutor do not unfound offenses or attempts which your [police] investigations establish to be legitimate" (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1984b, p. 40).

One of the ways that the FBI and the Department of Justice generates fear and creates moral panics is to compare the U.S. violent crime rate with other countries: especially Scandinavian countries where the official murder rate is substantially lower than in the U.S. These comparisons are, however meaningless.

In Sweden, for example, a death is not officially recorded as a homicide until someone has been found guilty in court of having committed the crime. Thus when the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger claimed that in 1980 Sweden and Denmark with a population of 12,000,000 people had fewer homicides that Washington, DC with a population of 650,000 he was grossly distorting reality for political purposes (Burger, 1981).

If the United States used the same method of determining homicides as do other Western countries, including Sweden and Denmark, the homicide rate in the U.S. would no doubt still be much higher but the difference would be less than reported by law enforcement agencies and criminologists in the U.S.

The Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook instructs police departments to count each person who commits a crime as a separate incident and each victim as a separate incident. If you have five men fighting with five others, the police report ten aggravated assaults. If three men are involved in one carjacking, it is counted as three carjackings.

If one man attacks five others in a bar, it is counted as five aggravated assaults:

"If a number of persons are involved in a dispute or disturbance and police investigation cannot establish the aggressors from the victims, count the number of persons assaulted as the number of offenses" (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1981)

In other words, if a fight ensues and it is unclear who, if anyone has committed a crime, the official statistics will show the number of assaults as the number of victims. And notice that the wording of the instructions does not require that the legal definition of "assault" be met in order to be reported as an assault. A simple "dispute or disturbance" is sufficient to be counted as an assault. Remember, in this context, that no charges need ever be brought:

police officers may well be reticent to arrest someone for assault simply because they are involved in a "dispute or disturbance".

Failure to make an arrest, however, does not keep the incident from being reported as a crime (in this case a violent crime) known to the police.

The categories used in the UCR are not uniform from one jurisdiction to another and changes in reporting policy by the police and the FBI confound the meaning to be attached to the data. Burglary, for example. requires the use of force for breaking and entering in many states, but the F.B.I. tells local police departments to report the crime of burglary simply if there is unlawful entry. Merging unlawful entry with breaking and entering makes statistics on "burglary" ambiguous and, of course, increases the number of burglary offenses reported.

Police and Prosecutors Charges

In the U.S. over 90% of the cases brought to court are settled by a guilty plea. The guilty plea is obtained through a bargaining process in which the prosecuting attorney confronts the accused with the charges brought against him or her and warns of the possible dire consequences if the person is found guilty of these charges. In order to expedite the case, the prosecuting attorney offers to accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge which carries with it a less severe punishment than the charges brought by the police. Knowing that plea bargaining will take place, police officers and prosecutors exaggerate the charges in order to insure that the defendant will be disadvantaged in the bargaining process. The official statistics, however, report the most serious crime charged against the defendant, not the crime for which the defendant plead or was found guilty. The crime initially charged is most often fabricated to increase the bargaining power of the prosecutor and increase the likelihood that the defendant will plead guilty to a lesser charge.

The charge brought does not reflect the reality of what transpired. A case in point is that of Willie Butts (a pseudonym) who was arrested for" possession of controlled substance (crack), resisting arrest with violence and battery of law enforcement officer." The police report written by the officer making the arrest states:

"The investigation revealed that on 06-06-87 at about 0020 I saw a vehicle drive to the 800 block of X street from Y. Its lights off, stopped and talked to someone. The person drove off in less than one minute. I then drove to that area without lights.

When I saw someone walk up to my vehicle, I turned on my lights to confront the suspect. As I began to exit my vehicle, the suspect reached into his front left pocket, pulled out a crack pipe and cigarette pack and threw it behind him to the ground. As I attempted to place the suspect against my car, he threw another object across the top of my car. When I attempted to search the suspect, he tried to reach in his pants pocket again. When I blocked him, he fought with me in an attempt to run. After the suspect was secured, I found a penknife in his left pocket. I then found a piece of crack cocaine in the cigarette pack which the suspect threw earlier" (Chambliss and Holman, 1994).

The defendant plead guilty to possession of crack cocaine:

the charges of battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest with violence were dropped. The official report to the FBI, however, contained the more serious charges, "Arrest with violence and battery of a law enforcement agent," The fact that, in all likelihood, the prosecutor would not have been able to obtain a conviction given the police officer's report of what actually happened, is irrelevant to the crime statistic.

The reality of what actually transpired, as revealed in the words of the police officer, does not correspond to the official statistic reported nor does it reflect the real nature of the crime. Multiply this case by hundreds of thousands of others reported by local police to the FBI and "dutifully reported" in the UCR and you have some idea of how grossly distorted are the crime statistics which form the basis for the media and public image of crime.

The FBI fails to distinguish between attempted and completed crimes: _Generally, attempts to commit a crime are classified as though the crimes were actually completed. The only exception to this rule applies to attempts or assaults to murder wherein the victim does not die_ (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1984b, p. 33).

Most years the FBI and local police departments are under pressure to increase the reported number of crimes in order to buttress their budgetary requests for more personnel and more funding. Occasionally, however, political pressure mounts to show a decrease in crime in order to show that the police are Pepinsky and Selke (1982) in a study of how the police in Indianapolis constructed crime rates found that the rates were made to fluctuate according to whether the people in political power wanted the rates to go up or down. Seidman and Couzens (1974) studied police reporting of the crime rate in Washington, D.C., during the time when Richard Nixon was using Washington as a "demonstration city" to show how his "war on crime" was effective.

During this period the police in Washington were under pressure to reduce the crime rate. The most common form of "serious" crime reported to the FBI by local police departments is felonious larceny (theft). For a larceny to be a felony it must be of property worth more than $50.00. To create the impression that the "war on crime" was effective, the Washington, D.C. police began reporting most of the larcenies known to them as larceny involving property valued at $49.00, which kept them from being reported as felonies and, thus, kept the serious crime rate down. The Chief of Police said:

"Either I have a man who will get the crime rate down in his district or I'll find a new man" (Seidman and Couzens, 1974: 482).

No doubt the Chief "found the man" who would get the crime rate down, if not the crime incidence. In New York in the 1990's after Guilliani was elected Mayor he made a concerted effort to "clean up the City," He instructed the Police Commissioner to rid the streets of panhandlers, homeless people, and kids at stop lights with squeegees who offered to wash car windows. That done, he instructed the Commissioner to lower the crime rate and voila, the crime rate was lowered. People felt safer, public opinion polls showed, and the Mayor was given credit for reducing crime. Victim surveys showed no difference in crime rate trends before and after Mayor Guilliani's campaign. ?? (check victim surveys, 1994-1997).

It was politics that changed the official crime rate reported by the police, not any real difference in the amount of crime.

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