The dark figure of (or for) crime
is a term employed by criminologists
to describe the amount of unreported or undiscovered crime, which calls into question the reliability
of official crime statistics
Victim studies, such as the research associated with the British Crime Survey (BCS), are recent attempts to provide an insight into the amount of unreported crime.
Unrecorded and unreported crime
Not all the crimes that take place are reported to, or recorded by, the police. Given this, sociologists refer to the gap between the official level of crime and the amount of crime in the community as the ‘dark figure’ for crime. For a crime to be recorded at least three things must happen:
- Somebody must be aware that a crime has taken place.
- That crime must be reported.
- The police or other agency must accept that a law has been broken.
It is now widely accepted by social researchers that official crime statistics have significant limitations. These include:
1. Some crimes are not reported to the police because
- The general public regards them as too trivial
- The victim finds the matter embarrassing
- Individuals are unaware they are victims (e.g. fraud or confidence tricks)
- Lack of confidence or trust in the police
- A fear of reprisals or victimisation
- The victim may take law into own hands - a form of rough justice
- Children who may not understand issues
- Victim may not want to harm the offender (e.g. domestic violence and abuse)
2. Some crimes are much more likely to be reported and recorded than others
- Where insurance claims for cars or household goods are involved
- Serious crimes are more likely to be reported than trivial offences
- Media campaigns or the reporting of high profile cases can lead to ‘moral panics’ and sensitize the general public to the existence of crime and thus reporting behaviour. This is known as ‘deviance amplification’
3. Police discretion can influence reporting and recording
- Different police forces employ different categories and paperwork
- There are campaigns that lead to crack downs on certain crimes or offences, such as drunk driving at Christmas
- Some forces will pay less attention to certain types of offence, such as the decision by the Met to liberalize the policing of soft drugs in Brixton in 2002
- A shift from informal or community policing to stricter, military style policing and zero tolerance campaigns, or vice versa, will influence crime rates
4. Changes in legislation, technologies and police manpower can influence the crime figures
- Some existing offences may be decriminalised or downgraded (e.g. homosexuality, abortion, some drug offences)
- New offences may be created (e.g. cyber crime, not wearing seatbelts, driving whilst using a mobile phone)
- The wider availability of telephones, alarm technologies, private security staff and close circuit cameras can make it easier to report offences and incidents
- The number of police officers per head has doubled in the UK since 1861. Furthermore, the police now employ civilians to deal with routine back office tasks that have freed up uniformed officers and other professional for other tasks
5. Social and economic changes can influence the volume of official crime recorded
- There are now more high value consumer goods, such as domestic electronics or cars, to steal than in the past
- Wider coverage for insurance has increased the incentives to report crimes
- Changes in the age distribution of the population can influence the crime rate. Fewer young people can lead to a reduction in deviance and delinquency
- The decline in close knit communities and greater population mobility can reduce informal social control and influence the crime rate
- Changing norms and values can influence the crime rate. For example, members of the public are now less tolerant of child abuse or domestic violence than in the past.
Sociologists and criminologists recognize these limitations of official crime statistics and have endeavoured to find alternative measures of criminality. These can broadly be divided into victimization and self report studies. For example, some crimes, such as tax evasion, do not have an obvious victim, and it is these that are least likely to be reported. However, attempts have been made to estimate the amount of crime which victims are aware of but which is not reported to the police or not recorded as a crime by them.
- Andy Pilkington (1995). Measuring Crime, Sociology Review, November 1995, pages 15-18.
- Moore, S. (1996). Investigating Crime and Deviance. Harpers Collins. ISBN 0003224392 pages 211 - 220
- Coleman, C., & Moynihan, J. (1996). Understanding crime data: haunted by the dark figure. Open University Press. ISBN 0335195199