The long road towards modernising crime statistics (1)

One of the problems to be resolved in the world of security is how to know and assess factors that cause insecurity, especially crimes. The principal tools available (police statistics and security surveys) are complementary and have advantages and drawbacks, and it is complicated to combine the results obtained with each of these.

Academics and professionals from the United States debated, between December 2013 and January 2017, how to modernise systems and instruments to measure crime in their country. The assignment came from two offices of the Department of Justice, the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), and had to cover three areas:

  • A substantial one: to develop a new way of classifying crime;
  • A methodological one: to propose a system for gathering data, and
  • One to be implemented: to recommend a way to carry out the gathering of data.

The first report presented by this group of experts was published in May 2016 and responded to the first of these areas, the classification of criminal acts. The objective was to have a joint vision of criminal typologies, based on, among other sources, police and survey data.

The current classification system is based on criteria established between 1929 and 1930, and its main feature is to gather few crimes that are regulated in a similar way all over the USA. Therefore, although it is a pragmatic and useful classification, it is also too rigid and strict, and one of the aims of the new system of classification is for it to provide a framework that allows for the incorporation of new crime types that may appear in the future.

The new classification is done with statistical objectives and its intention is that any crime can fit into some category, but only in one. The definitions of the classification highlight behaviour patterns, without any wish for these to necessarily correspond to crime typologies. Although the focus of the classification is related to penal offences, analysis made of incidents will also be kept in mind, and may include more than one crime or relate to one or more victims or one or more authors.

As well as reviewing the current system, historical precedents and the needs of the different users of crime statistics, they have also analysed other experiences when modernising statistics. Among these, the International Classification of Crime Statistics (ICCS) is stressed, approved by the United Nations in 2015 and established as an international standard that has been adopted as a reference framework incorporating modifications to take the country’s own reality into consideration (such as incidents with firearms).

Therefore, the new classification proposed contained 11 first tier (more generic) categories that, with some minor differences, correspond to those of the de ICCS:

  1. Acts that cause death or try to cause death
  2. Acts that cause damage or try to cause damage
  3. Offensive acts of a sexual nature
  4. Property-related acts of violence or threats of violence against persons
  5. Acts that only infringe upon property
  6. Acts related to controlled substances[1]
  7. Acts related to fraud, swindling or corruption
  8. Acts against public order and authority
  9. Acts against national security
  10. Acts against the environment or animals
  11. Other non-classified criminal acts in other categories

This first level of categories is then subdivided, in more or less detail, until it reaches a maximum of four levels (X.X.X.X), with which 189 different categories are achieved (the ICCS has as many as 230 categories).

The classification is accompanied by attributes or labels that facilitate further exploitation and even a posterior reclassification. These attributes are related to the incident or to the different offences, victims or authors related to the incident.

Next week we will complement the information with the result of the second report, published in March 2018, which proposes the system for gathering data and how to implement it.

The complete report can be consulted at:

Modernizing Crime Statistics

Report 1: Defining and Classifying Crime (2016)

[1] This includes narcotic drugs and substances prohibited or regulated by laws, as well as their precursors.


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