Almost all crimes become known to the police because citizens, usually victims, report them. In this role as gatekeeper, victims weigh their concerns about injustice, their own security, and the security of the community against the costs of reporting the crime, which may include a belief that the police are unlikely to arrest the offender or return stolen property and the notion that involvement in the criminal justice process is time-consuming and possibly humiliating. Typically, victims are more likely to report more serious crimes. The information and advice that victims solicit and receive from others are, often, also important. Just as in the case of victims, bystanders’ decisions to report criminal events are frequently subject to the social influence of others.
In the United States, there are more than 23 million crimes annually—more than 18 million property crimes and more than 5 million violent crimes. Since 1993, rates of crime have generally been declining, in part due to changing demographics (i.e., fewer people in the most crime-prone ages) but also due to the decline in the use of some drugs and to improved law enforcement practices. Although victims are stereotyped as being disproportionately female, White, and older, in fact, there is an overlap between offenders and victims, such that both offenders and victims are disproportionately male, Black, and young. Males are more likely to be victimized by a stranger, whereas females are more likely to be victimized by someone they know.
Absolute Reporting Rates
Reporting is generally considered by psychologists to be a type of help-seeking behavior. Most victims of crime seek help from others, although, depending on the crime, most do not call the police. Typically, victims seek help from family and friends, and some may also seek help from mental health professionals.
Less than half of all crime is reported to the police— about 47% of violent crimes and about 40% of property crimes. The biggest single predictor of whether a crime will be reported is the severity of the offense. About 60% of aggravated assaults, about 40% of simple assaults, about 55% of burglaries, about 80% of motor vehicle thefts, and about 30% of thefts are reported to the police. More generally, reporting is more likely for violent rather than property crimes, for completed than attempted crimes, for crimes in which the victim suffered more serious injury, for crimes that involved greater loss of property, and for crimes that involved a weapon.
Attitudes toward the police and the criminal justice system are generally not strong predictors of the decision to report or not to report a crime, although there is some evidence that satisfaction with how the police acted in prior cases is related to the reporting of subsequent victimizations. Moreover, although demographic characteristics are not strong predictors of reporting, there are small but consistent findings that females are more likely than males to report, especially violent crimes, and that older individuals are more likely than younger individuals to report them.
In general, crimes against strangers are more likely to be reported to the police than crimes against non-strangers. Several reasons might account for this difference, including fear of retaliation from the known offender, greater difficulty in determining whether the event really was a crime, a belief that the victim might be seen as partially responsible for the crime, and a belief that events occurring between nonstrangers, particularly intimates, are private matters.
Since the early 1990s, the rates of reported crime have generally been increasing, most markedly with regard to the reporting of sexual assault. This increase in the reporting of sexual assault is the result, in part, of statutory changes that make it easier for victims to report (e.g., victim shield laws that protect victims’ identity in the media) and for district attorneys to prosecute these cases (e.g., the elimination of the need for corroborating evidence beyond the victim’s statement).
More generally, victims might be more likely to report because of the increasing concern for victims since the establishment of the President’s Task Force on Victims of Crime in 1982. This report resulted in statutes or constitutional amendments in all 50 states that give victims the right to testify at criminal sentencing and to be notified about other stages of the criminal justice process (e.g., plea bargaining, parole hearings). Other victim-related legislation includes making restitution mandatory, making offenders pay fines that go to a fund that provides compensation to victims, establishing victim-witness-services offices (generally within the district attorney’s office) that give aid to victims, and providing funding for agencies that specifically support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Reasons for Reporting or Not Reporting
According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, a continuing survey of about 75,000 nationally representative individuals who are interviewed biannually, the most common reasons for reporting crimes are to stop or prevent the specific reported crime, to recover property, to prevent further crimes by the offender against the victim, to prevent crime by the offender against anyone, and because the event was a crime. The most common reasons for not reporting a crime are because it was reported to someone else, because it was a private or personal matter, and because the offender was unsuccessful. These reasons suggest that victims use a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to report the crime.
Process of Reporting
If a crime is to be reported to the police, then, based on a model by Martin Greenberg and Barry Ruback, the victim must label the event a crime, determine that it is serious enough to report, and then decide that reporting the crime to the police is the appropriate action to take. In terms of the first stage—labeling the event a crime—in most cases, the process is relatively straightforward. That is, the person determines whether the event matches his or her definition of what constitutes a crime (although the victim’s definition may or may not be the same as the legal definition of the crime). In some cases, the labeling process is more complex. For example, with property crime, individuals might decide that they had lost or misplaced an item rather than that the item had been stolen. For violent crimes, the issue is generally not whether the act occurred but whether the violent act is considered to be a crime. For example, a wife who suffers a physical beating from her husband may not define the event as a crime if she is part of a culture that thinks it is appropriate for men to beat their wives.
After the victim determines that an event is a crime, he or she must determine the seriousness of the crime. This determination of seriousness, which is important because it is related to the amount of distress and arousal the victim experiences, is based on how unfairly treated and on how vulnerable to future crime the victim feels. These two judgments are related to the magnitude of the physical, material, and psychological harms the victim experienced, the magnitude of the harms that the victim could have experienced, and the degree to which the crime was unexpected. Greater harm, greater potential harm, and greater unexpectedness lead to higher ratings of seriousness and to more arousal and distress.
After determining the seriousness of the crime, the victim must then decide what to do. Victims have four options. First, they can seek a private solution, such as seeking compensation from or retaliating against the offender if he or she is known or, in some cases, from third parties who may have been negligent in failing to take actions that would have prevented the crime from occurring. Second, victims can cognitively reevaluate the situation, by either reconsidering whether the event really was a crime or by reevaluating its seriousness. The most common form of cognitive reevaluation is for victims to blame themselves for the crime, at least in part. Third, victims may report the crime to the police based on their judgment after their weighing of the costs and benefits that reporting is likely to reduce their distress from being unfairly treated and being vulnerable to future victimizations. Finally, some victims might choose to do nothing, in the belief that nothing can reduce the injustice and make them feel safe.
Importance of Social Influence
Studies in the 1970s designed to determine why there was such a long delay before the police arrived at a crime scene came to the conclusion that the delay was due not to the police taking a long time but to victims talking to relatives, friends, and strangers before calling the police. These discussions with others make sense in that, for most people, being the victim of a crime is an unusual event and victims are likely to turn to others for help in understanding and coping with the crime.
According to social comparison theory, individuals are likely to rely on others for information and advice concerning perceptions and judgments that have no objective standard. That reliance on others is particularly likely when the individuals are aroused (as in an emergency situation) and are unsure of what to do. Consistent with this theory, crime victims often talk with others, generally friends and relatives, before deciding whether or not to call the police. And interview studies with rape, burglary, robbery, and theft victims indicate that these others are likely to give victims advice.
These other individuals can influence victims’ judgments about whether an event is a crime, how serious the crime is, and whether the crime should be reported.
Their influence comes from providing victims with information about the crime and the criminal justice system, from applying normative pressure concerning what they (and the group that they belong to) believe to be appropriate, and from providing support (or some-times nonsupport) in the form of sympathy, emotional support, and tangible help. Furthermore, experimental research by Martin Greenberg and Barry Ruback indicates that victims are likely to follow that advice, even if it comes from a stranger. Their experimental research found that victims would be especially likely to call the police if the bystander gave specific advice to call the police (rather than diffuse advice to do something), was physically present when the call to the police was made, and offered to be of help in the future.
Investigations of norms among several ethnic groups in the United States suggests that victims are more likely to be advised to call the police if they are female, if they are older, and if they have not been drinking. Females are more likely than males to advise calling the police. In addition, research across countries suggests that the closer the relationship between the offender and the victim, the less likely people are to advise reporting.
In most cases, it is the victim who reports the crime to the police. However, bystanders sometimes report, and work by Bibb Latane and John Darley indicated that the more the number of bystanders present the less likely any one of them is to report the crime. According to their research, the presence of others can affect whether an individual bystander notices the incident, interprets it as an emergency, assumes personal responsibility, and then reports the event to the police. The presence of others can lead to pluralistic ignorance, if for example, everyone believes that someone else has already reported the crime, and to diffusion of responsibility, if people realize that they have some blame for not reporting but that this blame is shared by everyone else who also did not report. Bystanders are often reluctant to report because of a fear of looking foolish. Also, bystanders may be reluctant to report crimes involving domestic situations because of their belief that personal relationships should be kept private.
For most crimes, bystanders who do not report are not subject to legal sanction. The one exception is for crimes of child abuse. All states mandate that when, in the course of their employment or professional practice, certain individuals (e.g., physicians, nurses, school teachers, mental health professionals) come across what they believe to be child abuse, they must report the abuse to the proper authorities. Despite the fact that failing to report can lead to criminal penalties, many individuals who are required to report, including therapists, do not do so. Their decision not to report is often based on the fact that most cases do not involve serious abuse, and such cases, if reported, are unlikely to result in prosecution. Thus, reporting the abuse is likely to lead to a lengthy and expensive legal process that will probably result in some action to encourage the family to seek treatment. If the family were already in therapy, mental health professionals may judge that reporting produces no positive outcomes. Moreover, because reporting violates confidentiality, undermines the therapeutic relationship, and is intrusive and likely damaging to the family, mental health professionals are likely to believe that reporting is, on balance, not worthwhile. Thus, many clinicians have, at some time, chosen not to report suspected child abuse.
- Greenberg, M. S., & Ruback, R. B. (1992). After the crime: Victim decision making. New York: Plenum.
- Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Ruback, R. B., & Thompson, M. A. (2001). Social and psychological consequences of violent victimization.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.