The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) is the basis for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) annual publication Crime in the United States. The UCR is the only official, standardized, police-based crime reporting program in the United States. The report measures the level and distribution of both serious and less serious crimes (including felonies and nonfelonies) as well as the responses by local law enforcement agencies. Three major types of data include crimes reported to the police, arrest data, and clearance statistics for more than 25 different types of offenses.
UCR data are considered more reliable from the mid-1970s onward, but there remain a significant number of problems currently plaguing the system. These include poor coverage of rape offenses, low reporting rates for arson, lack of full details on incidents, and undercounting offenses due to the hierarchy rule (i.e., the practice of only the most serious crimes being recorded, even with multiple-offense incidents). The FBI is promoting the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) because of its ability to overcome these limitations, but cost constraints have limited its adoption. The annual UCR publication mostly presents aggregate data on offense categories and ignores the richness of data available on subcategories of offenses through NIBRS.
The police are heavily dependent on the reporting of crimes by victims and witnesses, which limits the ability of the UCR program to provide an accurate and complete count of all crimes. Crime counts are also selectively created in a nonrandom manner as a result of police discretion in recording. Considerable controversy exists about the ability of the UCR program to report less-serious offenses. Arrest data are available only for offenses that include incidents of simple assaults, vandalism, and gambling; yet the number of arrests far exceeds offense counts of felonies.
The program is unlikely to mismeasure serious offenses, with the exception of rapes and related sexual offenses; many experts consider the reporting and coverage for serious violent offenses as relatively good. Despite the historical issue of manipulation of UCR crime statistics by local agencies, the reporting to police for more serious crimes, involving severe injuries, use of lethal weapons, and high-value stolen property, is mostly valid and reliable.
Most definitions of crime as a social problem rely on these reports as media, policymakers, and academic analysts of crime and violence incorporate UCR data, whose official status gives these reports more legitimacy than other sources. Although the social dimensions of crime and violence are not directly captured, any meaningful use by analysts invariably involves linking UCR data to social factors to be able to explain patterns and distributions of these offenses. UCR statistics include policing actions, which allows for the analysis of law enforcement behavior and the influence of police in labeling individuals and events as criminal. Police are the primary formalized social control agency that may be critical in determining the visibility of crimes and related social problems. Police have considerable discretion in enforcement and response, especially at the municipal and county levels, in how incidents are treated and processed.
The geographical, temporal, and offense coverage of the UCR program is the most comprehensive of any crime data set. One of the major advantages of the UCR is reporting by local law enforcement agencies, which allows for more focused understanding of crime problems and their diversity. Victimization surveys, in contrast, are at the national level, with limited information on the spatial distribution of crime. The process of compiling data has been facilitated and improved by the establishment of state UCR programs. At this time, the UCR remains the most comprehensive and practical source for crime data despite identified weaknesses, and reliance on UCR data will no doubt continue.
- Lynch, James P. and Lynn A. Addington, eds. 2007. Understanding Crime Statistics: Revisiting the Divergence of the NCVS and UCR. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Maltz, Michael. 1999. Bridging Gaps in Police Crime Data: A Discussion Paper from the BJS Fellows Program. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.