When Choice of Data Matters: Analyses of U.S. Crime Trends, 1973–2012

Abstract

Objectives

This study uses UCR and NCVS crime data to assess which data source appears to be more valid for analyses of long-term trends in crime. The relationships between UCR and NCVS trends in violence and six factors from prior research are estimated to illustrate the impact of data choice on findings about potential sources of changes in crime over time.

Methods

Crime-specific data from the UCR and NCVS for the period 1973–2012 are compared to each other using a variety of correlational techniques to assess correspondence in the trends, and to UCR homicide data which have been shown to be externally valid in comparison with other mortality records. Log-level trend correlations are used to describe the associations between trends in violence, homicide and the potential explanatory factors.

Results

Although long-term trends in robbery, burglary and motor vehicle theft in the UCR and NCVS are similar, this is not the case for rape, aggravated assault, or a summary measure of serious violence. NCVS trends in serious violence are more highly correlated with homicide data than are UCR trends suggesting that the NCVS is a more valid indicator of long-term trends in violence for crimes other than robbery. This is largely due to differences during the early part of the time series for aggravated assault and rape when the UCR data exhibited consistent increases in the rates in contrast to general declines in the NCVS. Choice of data does affect conclusions about the relationships between hypothesized explanatory factors and serious violence. Most notably, the reported association between trends in levels of gasoline lead exposure and serious violence is likely to be an artifact associated with the reliance on UCR data, as it is not found when NCVS or homicide trend data are used.

Conclusions

The weight of the evidence suggests that NCVS data represent more valid indicators of the trends in rape, aggravated assault and serious violence from 1973 to the mid-1980s. Studies of national trends in serious violence that include the 1973 to mid-1980s period should rely on NCVS and homicide data for analyses of the covariates of violent crime trends.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Rosenfeld’s (2007) analysis of aggravated assault trends are based on data through 2001, while Jensen and Karpos’ (1993) analysis of rape trends include data through 1990.

  2. 2.

    Data for these analyses are available in ICPSR data sets 7635, 8608, 8864, 4699, and 34907. For more information, see http://icpsr.umich.edu/NACJD/NCVS.

  3. 3.

    Research by Nevin and others (e.g., Reyes 2007a, b) use different lags in lead exposure to best fit the UCR crime trend data. For example, Nevin (2000) uses a best-fit lag structure in which lags of 15–28 years in gasoline lead exposure were tested against each crime type and the lag with the highest R2 and lowest p value was selected. Nevin (2000) uses a lag of 23 years for violent crime, which we have replicated here, though we also produce the same substantive findings when using a 22-year lag (following Reyes 2007a).

  4. 4.

    Prior to 1978, U.S. consumption of tetraethyl lead in gasoline was reported in short tons. The U.S. Geological Society began reporting these data in metric tons after 1978. Therefore, we multiplied metric tons by 1.10231 to convert the data into short tons (see U.S. Energy Information Administration 2015).

  5. 5.

    Persons over age 25 are typically beyond the age of college completion. The NCVS does not measure current college enrollment across all years for persons over age 25, therefore we rely on work and military service as indicators of young adult engagement in conventional social institutions.

  6. 6.

    To minimize the effect of sampling error and make it easier to compare long-term trends, three-year moving averages are used for the NCVS trends. Figures and analyses based on unsmoothed NCVS rates exhibit no substantive differences from those based on the smoothed rates and are available upon request from the authors.

  7. 7.

    The only trend to not exhibit an increase around 2006 was the UCR series for rape.

  8. 8.

    Not surprisingly, these correlations are only somewhat different from those reported for 1973–2008 in Ansari and He (2012). For robbery and aggravated assault, their correlations are .83 and .02, respectively, and for burglary and motor vehicle theft they are .95 and .84.

  9. 9.

    To better see the crime-specific trend correspondence in these figures, the UCR rape rates are multiplied by 10 and the NCVS rape rates are multiplied by 2 prior to log transformation.

  10. 10.

    We also note that recent crime trends research suggests that the relationships between factors such as consumer pessimism and violence appear to change beginning in the early 2000s (e.g., Lauritsen and Heimer 2010). Existing research has not yet accounted for such changes, but these changing relationships suggest that other factors associated with the more recent period may be moderating these relationships (e.g., perhaps through improvements in policing, other macro-social changes, or a combination of such factors).

  11. 11.

    For purposes of display, the logged lead estimate used in this figure is multiplied by 5.25 to better illustrate its similarities to the UCR serious violent crime measure.

  12. 12.

    It is also the case that both aggravated assault and rape are crimes that are much more likely to be committed by non-strangers and to involve women as victims—incidents that in the past were more often considered to be private affairs and not conform to stereotypical views of crime.

  13. 13.

    Reyes (2007a:2) claims that “…between 1992 and 2002, the phase-out of lead from gasoline was responsible for approximately a 56 % decline in violent crime.”.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the members of the National Academy of Sciences’ Roundtable on Crime Trends and to anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Janet L. Lauritsen.

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Lauritsen, J.L., Rezey, M.L. & Heimer, K. When Choice of Data Matters: Analyses of U.S. Crime Trends, 1973–2012. J Quant Criminol 32, 335–355 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-015-9277-2

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Keywords

  • Crime trends
  • Violence trends
  • Lead exposure
  • NCVS
  • UCR