US National Crime Victimization Survey Research Paper

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The importance of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and its predecessor the National Crime Survey (NCS) to the study of crime and development of crime statistics cannot be emphasized enough. For over 40 years, the NCS-NCVS has been one of only two ongoing national measures of crime in the United States that provide annual level and change estimates. The NCS-NCVS not only has played a groundbreaking role in shaping US crime statistics, but also international ones. This research paper discusses the rich history of the NCS-NCVS with a focus on its methodological development. This research paper also describes the survey’s trends and key findings over time and the continued influence of the NCS-NCVS on crime measurement.


The importance of the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and its predecessor the National Crime Survey (NCS) on the study of crime and development of crime statistics cannot be emphasized enough. The NCS-NCVS is one of only two ongoing national measures of crime in the United States that provide annual level and change estimates. In addition, the NCS-NCVS played a groundbreaking role in shaping US crime statistics. Before the NCS, no national crime statistics had been based on self-reported survey data from the general public. The other national source is from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), which measures crime using official police records. To provide an understanding of the NCSNCVS, this research paper examines the history and development of the survey with a focus on its methodology. This research paper then reviews key findings that have been obtained from the survey as well as a discussion of its effect on the study of crime and measurement of victimization.

History Of The NCS-NCVS

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed two Presidential Commissions with charges that included examining the causes and characteristics of rising crime in urban areas in the United States and recommending policies and programs to reduce this apparent growing crime problem (Cantor and Lynch 2000). The Commissions immediately confronted the problem of a significant lack of information from which to accomplish their charges. The Commission strongly criticized the quality of US crime data at the time and described the situation as one where “the United States is today, in the era of the high speed computer, trying to keep track of crime and criminals with a system that was no less than adequate in the days of the horse and buggy” (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967, p. 123).

At the time the Commissions were instituted, the only source of national crime data available was from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR). The Federal Bureau of Investigation collected UCR data from state and local law enforcement agencies. UCR data had four fundamental limitations for studying crime and for the Commissions’ purposes. First, as an accounting of crimes known to police, UCR data by design could not identify the nature and extent of offenses that victims did not report. A second limitation was that UCR data were several steps removed from the crime incident and likely reflected law enforcement activity and agency priorities rather than criminal behavior and trends in crime. Sellin (1931) identified this problem shortly after the UCR was implemented. Third, police data could be subject to manipulation and misrepresentation through the classification and counting rules needed to establish uniformity in the UCR data (Beattie 1941). While this problem did not appear to be widespread, well-publicized cases highlighted this concern and brought all UCR data under question (Seidman and Couzens 1974). Finally, UCR data at the time were aggregate counts of crime and as such failed to provide details about the criminal incidents. Without any incident-level details, these data could not identify important information about criminal events nor the victims and offenders involved (Dodge and Turner 1981).

The Commissions reached the conclusion that the United States needed a national survey of crime victimization (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice 1967). The genesis for using victim surveys to measure crime originated from the UCR data limitations as well as an environment receptive to a self-reported survey-based data collection. This new attitude toward survey research arose due to a convergence of factors that included increased attention on crime as a social problem and overall advances in the field of survey methodology (see Cantor and Lynch 2000, for a discussion). Victimization surveys offered an alternative source of crime data that provided greater incident details than the existing aggregate-based UCR as well as a system independent from, and not influenced by, police practices and policies.

Victimization surveys in theory addressed the data limitation identified by the Commissions. The unknown issue was whether victimization surveys would work in practice, both in terms of the cooperation of respondents in reporting victimization experiences, the reliability and validity of their responses, and the ability to produce annual crime estimates. No other country had relied on self-reported survey data to produce national crime estimates (Hough et al. 2007; UNODC 2010). To test this method, the Presidential Commissions supported three sets of pilot victimization surveys: one household-based sample in Washington, DC; one group of city based household samples; and one national household sample. All of these pilots produced two important findings: confirmation that victim surveys could provide reliable crime estimates and identification that a significant amount of crime that occurred was never reported to the police (Biderman 1967; Cantor and Lynch 2000). These pilot surveys also assisted in identifying methodological issues such as ways to facilitate recall, temporal placement, and collecting crimes against the household (Cantor and Lynch 2000).

Given these findings, the Commission recommended a routine collection of national victimization data on an ongoing basis as well as the infrastructure to collect this data in the form of a national criminal justice statistics center. In 1968, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) was created within the US Department of Justice and charged with implementing a national victimization survey. The LEAA was the predecessor to today’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which now oversees the crime survey as well as a full portfolio of other criminal justice statistics. The Bureau of the Census was selected to design and implement the survey on LEAA’s behalf.

Based on recommendations from the Commissions and findings from methodological studies, the NCS was created and first implemented in 1972. Originally the NCS was a system of four interrelated victimization surveys: one national household sample (the Crime Panel), a city-level household sample (the Central Cities Survey), and two Commercial Victimization Surveys (one at the national level and one at the city level). The Commercial Victimization Surveys initially included a sample of 2,000 commercial establishments in 26 large cities, and a sample of 15,000 businesses across the nation. The Central Cities Survey included sample from 26 large cities, and the Crime Panel was a national probability sample of 72,000 households. Almost immediately, budgetary and methodological issues beleaguered this design and prompted the removal of three of the surveys. After 1976, only the Crime Panel remained and is what is referred as the NCS. This research paper uses NCS to refer to the Crime Panel’s national sample of households.

The original goals for the NCS concerned providing an indicator of the crime problem independent from police data and the UCR and an ongoing measure of victimization risk (Rennison and Rand 2007). The NCS also served other purposes that included shifting the focus of the criminal justice system to the victim and away from the offender and providing a measure to assess changes in police reporting (Rennison and Rand 2007). As a result of this close tie to monitoring the UCR and police activities, the crimes covered by the NCS were closely linked with the UCR crimes. The NCS crimes included rape, robbery, aggravated and simple assault, personal larceny (pickpocketing and purse snatching), burglary, motor vehicle theft, and property theft.

Methodological Development Of The NCS-NCVS

Original NCS Methodology

The NCS originally was based on a sample of approximately 72,000 housing units and group quarters in the United States. Given this sampling frame, individuals who served as crewmembers of merchant vessels, military personnel housed in military barracks, and institutionalized persons (including but not limited to prisoners) were excluded from the survey. This sample of households was developed based on a rotating, stratified, multistage cluster panel design to take advantage of efficiency and cost-saving qualities of this approach as well as to comport with the Census field staff assignments for its Current Population Survey (Hubble 1995; Lehnen and Reiss 1978).

Each NCS household remained in-sample for three and a half years and was interviewed at 6 month intervals. Sampled households entry into the survey was staggered with an introduction of new panels of households being rotated in and out of the overall sample during each month. The rotation was designed such that one-sixth of the sample was interviewed for the first time, one-sixth for the second time, one-sixth for the third time, and so forth, each month (Lehnen and Reiss 1978). As a result, the overall sample changed on a monthly basis. Because the NCS was a survey of households, individuals or families were not followed if they moved. Thus the composition of households could change due to events such as relocation, marriage, divorce, incarceration, children aging into the sample, or death. In the most extreme case, entire families moved out of housing units and were replaced by new families during the 3 and a half year interview period.

At each 6 month interview period (or enumeration), all persons age 14 or older residing in the household were interviewed either in person or over the phone using a paper and pencil interviewing mode. Household residents ages 12 and 13 were included in the NCS but only were interviewed by proxy. Each household had a single respondent designated as the household respondent. This individual not only answered questions regarding any personal victimization experienced in the 6 month retrospective period, but also questions regarding victimizations against the household, which included burglary, motor vehicle theft and other theft. The household respondent was required to be a household member at least 18 years old who was deemed likely to give accurate answers regarding the household questions. This person was always the first person interviewed in the household during each enumeration. Household respondents could vary within each household across enumerations. All other respondents were questioned regarding their own personal victimization experiences.

The NCS utilized three primary survey instruments: the Control Card, the Basic Screen Questionnaire, and the Crime Incident Report. The Control Card served as the administrative record to gather basic information about the sampled unit including a roster of all persons residing in the household, a record of visits, telephone calls, interviews, and non-interview reasons. The household respondent provided the names, ages, genders, marital statuses, education levels, and relationships of all persons in the household. This information was updated at each interview and included a brief description of all victimizations previously reported by all members of the household. With this information, the Control Card served as a quick reference during later interviews to minimize double-counting of victimizations already reported to the survey during a previous interview.

The NCS collected its victimization data using an innovative two-step process to promote recall. The first step concerned screening for any victimization. Here the Basic Screen Questionnaire ascertained whether any crimes had been committed against the household or individual household members during the previous 6 months. The structure of the NCS screener that was implemented departed from the pilot tests that recommended a short cue approach to facilitate recall (Cantor and Lynch 2000). One reason for this departure was to facilitate matching reported victimization incidents with UCR defined crimes. While the legal jargon of the UCR was not used in the screener, the questions did have a direct correspondence with UCR crimes. For example, screening questions related to assault victimizations asked: “Did anyone beat you up, attack you or hit you with something, such as a rock or bottle?” and “Were you knifed, shot at, or attacked with some other weapon by anyone at all?” If a respondent reported a victimization incident, a separate set of questions would gather details of the event for later determination as to whether a crime (and what type of crime) occurred.

The Crime Incident Report (CIR) collected detailed information about the reported victimizations identified during the screening stage. These details included incident characteristics such as the time, date, and place of the crime; information about the offender including any relationship to the victim; consequences to the victim including injury and loss of or damage to property; and whether the incident was reported to police. The detailed information collected on the CIR was used to determine whether the incident reported was within the scope of the NCS and to classify the type of crime. The NCS used an algorithm based on responses to several questions to classify the crime type.

Counting crimes for the NCS’s annual estimation purposes required addressing additional issues in the case of respondents who experienced more than one crime in a particular incident (such as a rape and a robbery) or multiple incidents during the 6 month recall period. For respondents who experienced more than one crime during an incident, the NCS created a hierarchy of crime, where only the most serious crime would be counted. The NCS hierarchy from most to least serious was as follows: rape, robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, personal larceny (purse snatching and pickpocketing), burglary, motor vehicle theft, and property theft. In the example where a victim was robbed and raped in a single incident, only the rape would be counted for annual estimation purposes. It is important to keep in mind this hierarchy is only for BJS’s annual estimation purposes. Public use NCSNCVS files allow researchers to discern all crimes that occur within a victimization incident (see, e.g., Addington and Rennison 2008).

A second difficulty in crime counting concerns measuring victims who experience on-going or repeated violence. To address the difficulties that these respondents had in remembering needed details of each incident and to minimize the burden of completing a large number of CIRs, the NCS utilized a special protocol for such “series victimizations” Series victimizations referred to three or more victimizations, similar in nature, in which a respondent unable to remember the details in the previous 6 month reference period. In these instances, details of only the most recent incident in the series were recorded in the CIR along with the number of times the person was victimized.

Changes To The NCS Methodology Over Time

The NCS underwent a significant redesign effort (see Cantor and Lynch 2000, for an in-depth discussion). The redesign efforts began almost as soon as the survey went into the field (Cantor and Lynch 2000). The NCS was a significant event for both those interested in survey methodology as well as social statistics. One area of criticism came from academics who challenged the significant financial expenditure on a data system that provided limited analysis options and few variables that could be used for theory testing (Cantor and Lynch 2000). Critiques also came from the law enforcement community who questioned this new survey crime data collection method based on victim self-reports and the associated criticisms of police-based crime data (Cantor and Lynch 2000). At one point, the NCS had attracted enough criticism that the US Department of Justice considered discontinuing the survey until it could be redesigned (Lynch 1990). While the survey was never suspended, it was the subject of a re-evaluation by National Academy of Sciences and a 5 year program of research, instrument development, and redesign planning (Lynch 1990).

This redesign effort focused on developing a better screening instrument to promote respondent recall of victimization incidents and revising the incident report to collect additional details about the victimization event (Cantor and Lynch 2000). Other redesign work concerned research devoted to recall periods, respondent fatigue and other methodological issues (Cantor and Lynch 2000). Research and development of these efforts began in the 1980s and the fully redesigned survey was introduced into the field in 1992.

Before full implementation of the redesigned NCS, certain changes were implemented that addressed methodological issues as well as minimized the cost of the survey. These so-called “near term” changes were limited to those that were not likely to affect the NCS’s estimates of annual crime rates for trend purposes also referred to as non-rate affecting. Examples of these changes concerned reducing proxy interviews, changes to the CIR, changes to telephone interviewing, and a name change. In 1986, the survey reduced the number of proxy interviews by directly interviewing persons age 12 or older (vs. 14 or older as it had been originally), and additional questions concerning incident details were added to the CIR. In 1987, centralized computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) started being phased in alongside continued paper and pencil mode (both in-person and over the telephone). Over the years, the number of inperson interviews was reduced to the point where only the first interview is conducted in person. All other interviews are conducted over the telephone unless this mode is not acceptable to the respondent or not feasible due to circumstances such as a household moving into sample. Finally in 1991 prior to the launch of the fully redesigned NCS, the survey changed its name to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). For the remainder of this research paper, the acronyms “NCS” refers to the pre-redesign survey, “NCVS” refers to the post-redesign survey, and “NCS-NCVS” refers to both surveys.

The completely redesigned NCVS went into the field in 1992. The redesigned survey kept the same three instrument format (control card, screener and incident report). Otherwise the survey had been completely overhauled, most noticeably in terms of the screener. The post-redesign screener included a series of short cues to prompt recall. In the NCS, each screener question corresponded to a particular crime, such as assault. In the NCVS, screener questions instead focused on aspects of the victimization such as where it occurred, what the respondent was doing at the time, and who committed the offense. The premise was to facilitate recall and to use various memory triggers to do so. An example of the screening question that focuses on who the offender is the following: “People often don’t think of incidents committed by someone they know. (Other than any incidents already mentioned,) did you have something stolen from you OR were you attacked or threatened by – (a) Someone at work or school – (b) A neighbor or friend – (c) A relative or family member – (d) Any other person you’ve met or known?”

The redesigned screening process also added identification of new crimes (vandalism and sexual assault) and specific prompts were added to better collect data on certain crimes that had been included in the NCS (rape and domestic violence). Rape and domestic violence were more clearly screened by including questions related to sexually based offenses and offenses committed by people known to the respondent. In addition, the redesigned NCVS took advantage of the use of supplements or additional sets of questions beyond the Control Card, Screener and CIR. These supplements were used to collect information on additional crimes beyond those included for annual crime estimation purposes. Supplement topics included workplace violence, school crime, stalking, and identity theft. Other changes that occurred with the redesign concerned repeated (or series) crimes were counted and certain methodological changes (Rennison and Rand 2007).

The 1992 redesign was implemented over an 18-month period using a split-sample design data in which half the sample was collected using the old NCS methodology, and half was collected using the redesigned NCVS methodology. Analyses indicated that the redesigned survey provided a better measure of crime and as expected that the redesign had a greater effect on certain crime types than others. In particular, the redesigned survey and its use of short cues in the screener uncovered more rape and domestic violence and the redesigned survey collected a higher percentage of crime that was not reported to the police than the NCS.

The NCVS has experienced additional changes since its redesign. Until recently, many of these changes centered on efforts to reduce costs as the NCVS has been flat funded for most of its existence since the redesign. The most significant of these changes has been the dramatic cut in sample size (Rennison and Rand 2007). Concurrent with the flat funding and sample cuts, external pressures demanded that the NCVS do more in terms of data collection and speed in releasing data. Questions were added concerning hate crimes, crimes against the disabled, computer crimes and identity theft. The NCVS was also under pressure to produce its annual estimates more quickly (Rennison and Rand 2007).

The deep cuts to the NCVS program generated an unsustainable situation and a request by BJS for the National Academies’ Committee on National Statistics (CNSTAT) for a panel to review the NCVS and “consider alternative options for conducting the [NCVS]” (National Research Council 2008, p. 23). The CNSTAT Panel’s review found the NCVS was in need of more resources and restoration. Specifically “[a]s currently configured and funded, the NCVS is not achieving and cannot achieve BJS’s legislatively mandated goal to ‘collect and analyze data that will serve as a continuous and comparable national social indication of the prevalence, incidence, rates, extent, distribution, and attributes of crime .. .’” (National Research Council 2008, p. 78). The CNSTAT Panel offered many recommendations to restore and modernize the NCVS as well as an overall call to encourage appropriate funding of the survey. In response to this report, BJS began conducting a redesign effort to address the recommendations. These efforts have included restoring the sample size to increase precision and reliability, as well as efforts to generate sub-national victimization estimates (BJS, n.d.).

Limitations Of The Victimization Survey Methodology

Victimization surveys provide a perspective of crime independent from official police statistics. While this approach offers valuable information for understanding victimization, these surveys in general and with the NCS-NCVS in particular are not without limitations. These limitations can be categorized as ones based on the sampling frame, sampling error, and non-sampling error (see Maltz 1998 for a detailed discussion of these issues).

Certain limitations arise due to the selection of the population to be included in the survey sample. For the NCS-NCVS, this methodological decision does exclude certain crime victims due to selections based on age and residential requirements as well as it being a non-commercial survey. Currently one must be age 12 or older to be eligible for the NCS-NCVS. In addition, only households in the United States are sampled for purposes of the NCS-NCVS. Therefore homeless persons, those living in military barracks, incarcerated individuals, persons visiting from out of the country and other institutionalized persons are excluded from the survey. The NCS-NCVS only covers non-commercial crimes since businesses are not included in the population sampled. As such, while a household burglary is counted, a burglary of a business is not.

Like all surveys, the NCS-NCVS are subject to sampling error. Depending upon the crime and population of victims considered, this error can be large (Maltz 1998; Rand and Rennison 2002).

The NCS-NCVS is also subject to nonsampling errors including those related to inaccurate respondent recall. Respondents may forget criminal events, or be in error about characteristics of a recalled event including when it happened, who was involved and what transpired. In some instances victims may refuse to share details of criminal events especially if the offender is a relative or intimate partner.

Key Findings From NCS-NCVS Data Over The Years

The NCS-NCVS is a rich resource of information on crime trends and incident details. In terms of long-term trends, NCS-NCVS data show that non-fatal violence most recently peaked in the early 1990s, and has since decreased dramatically to rates unseen for decades (Bastian 1995; Ringel 1997; Truman 2011). In addition to identifying overall long-term trends, the NCS-NCVS data are uniquely suited to provide incident level details over time for US crime rates. When these details are examined, similar trends are observed across different types of victims, offenders and crimes (Bastian 1995; Ringel 1997; Truman 2011).

One unique aspect of the NCS-NCVS in comparison to the UCR is the collection of data regarding patterns of reporting victimizations to police. The pre-NCS pilots highlighted the large proportion of crimes that were not reported to police and prompted Biderman and Reiss’s groundbreaking 1967 article that identified this “dark figure of crime.” The underreporting of crime continues to this day. The NCVS data indicate that a higher percentage of violent crimes come to the attention of police than property crimes (50 % vs. 40 %) (Catalano and Rand 2007; Rand 2009, 2008; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010). Within violent crime, the percentage of victimizations reported to the police varies. For example approximately 57 % of robberies and 55 % of aggravated assaults are reported to police (Hart and Rennison 2003). Historically, rape and sexual assault is the violent crime least likely to come to the attention of the police as only about one-third are reported (Hart and Rennison 2003). Finally, less than half (about 44 %) of simple assault tend to be reported to the police (Hart and Rennison 2003). In contrast, while motor vehicle thefts are the least common type of property crime, it is the individual crime most consistently reported to the police (Catalano and Rand 2007; Hart and Rennison 2003; Rand 2009, 2008; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010).

Data from the NCS and NCVS also provide the basis for current understandings about victimization, particularly the relationship between victimization and particular individual characteristics. With the exception of rape and sexual assault, males are more likely to be victimized than females (Catalano and Rand 2007; Rand 2009, 2008; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010). Those with less education, a lower income, and who are younger are at a higher risk for all forms of victimization than the well-educated, those with higher incomes and older individuals (Catalano and Rand 2007; Rand 2009, 2008; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010). Most non-fatal violence is not committed with a weapon, but when it is, a firearm is most often used; and similarly most victims are not injured as a result of non-fatal violence that is reported to the NCS-NCVS (Rand 2009, 2008; Rennison 1999; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010). The NCS-NCVS also put victimization into context and challenged popular beliefs. Stranger violence against females is less common than is violence by a known offender (Rand 2009, 2008; Rennison 1999; Truman 2011; Truman and Rand 2010). The bulk of non-fatal violence is intra-racial and occurs close to the victim’s home (Truman and Rand 2010; Rand 2009, 2008).

In addition to the core NCS-NCVS questions, the NCS-NCVS supplements have allowed unique insights with regard to particular types of victimization including information on characteristics of workplace violence, types of identity theft, and trends in school violence. The workplace violence supplement shows that law enforcement officers, security guards and bartenders as those who experience the highest rates of workplace violence (Harrell 2011). Data from the NCVS’s identity theft supplement shows that from 2005 to 2010 credit card theft was the most common type of identity theft occurring in a household (Langton and Planty 2010). With regard to school violence, regular fielding of the NCVS’s School Crime Supplement shows that school violence has been declining at a steady rate since 1992 (Robers et al. 2012).

Effect Of NCS-NCVS On Crime Data Collection

The NCS-NCVS have been influential on the measurement of crime and collection of crime statistics. One of the most immediate effects of the NCS was not on a survey data collection, but on the UCR and its use of police records to collect crime data. The incident details provided by the NCS highlighted the limitations with the UCR’s aggregate-level system. With the available details from the NCS, researchers and policymakers began to demand the production of police data that provided incident-level information needed to explain the crime problem (Poggio et al. 1985). This situation prompted the creation of the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) as a new method for collecting UCR data. In addition to expanding the number of crimes reported to the UCR, NIBRS captures incident-level characteristics not included in the summary reporting system.

Given the groundbreaking nature of the NCSNCVS as demonstrating the feasibility of survey data as a resource for generating national crime statistics, the NCS-NCVS also have influenced the development of omnibus crime data collections abroad. In particular, the methodological experiences gained from the NCS-NCVS informed victimization surveys in other countries. For example, both the idea and the model for the British Crime Survey came from the NCS (Hough et al. 2007). Since the NCS began in 1972, the number of crime surveys has flourished. According to one inventory sponsored by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there were approximately 62 countrywide victimization surveys as of 2006. Approximately two-thirds of these surveys were purely victimization surveys (e.g., Scottish Crime Survey, British Crime Survey, Northern Ireland), while the remainder were victimization components of more general surveys (e.g., Australia and Canada). The NCS also influenced cross-national studies of crime. Since 1989, the International Crime Victimization Survey (ICVS) has provided for a comparative approach to understanding crime and victimization without the limitations associated with official records by gathering victimization data for several types of crime from participating nations. Since its inception, 78 countries have participated in the ICVS at least once, and more than 300,000 people have been interviewed.


The NCS-NCVS fundamentally changed how crime is measured and shaped how crime data are collected. The history of the survey highlights the wealth of research that has been devoted to the initial development of the NCS and its redesigned successor. The surveys have shaped knowledge about crime and the experience of victims as well as provided important insights regarding trends in crime over time and details about particular aspects of victimization. The future of the NCVS is one of continued evolution both in response to new knowledge about crime and a continued demand for more detailed data. Current recommendations for the NCVS focus on considering including data collection on emerging crime types such as identity theft as well as expanding the use of supplements to collect detailed information on a rotating basis (NRC 2008). The NCVS must balance these demands for expansion and change with ongoing concerns particularly its historic primary goal of generating annual level and change crime estimates.


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