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Two Crime Measures' 'Confusing Story' -- Was Violence Up or Down?

Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993–2022

This week, the FBI released 2022 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data that showed a drop in the nation’s violent crime rate. Meanwhile, the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) reported last month that total violent crime victimization rose in 2022.

The divergence between the nation’s two crime measures makes it uncertain whether violent crime actually went up or down in 2022, write criminologists Richard Rosenfeld and Janet Lauritsen of the University of Missouri St. Louis for the Council on Criminal Justice.

FBI statistics reflect crimes reported by the public to police. The UCR data for 2022 are from more than 80% of the nation’s law enforcement agencies covering more than 90% of the population. That data, reported in the FBI's Crime Data Explorer, showed a 2% drop in the nation’s violent crime rate, from 387 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2021 to 380.7 in 2022.

UCR violent crimes consist of murders, robberies, aggravated assaults, and rapes known to the police. Aggravated assaults are the great majority of violent crimes, and the UCR aggravated assault rate fell by 2%.

Homicides are the most serious of the violent crimes and, fortunately, the rarest. The 19,200 homicides in 2022 made up less than 2% of the approximately one million violent crimes known to the police that year. The homicide rate fell by 7% between 2021 and 2022, from 6.8 to 6.3 homicides per 100,000.

The National Crime Victimization Survey measures crime in a nationwide household survey of respondents ages 12 and over. In contrast to the modest drop shown in the FBI’s violent crime data, the NCVS shows a large increase in violent victimization over the same period.

The NCVS serious violent crime rate rose from 5.6 to 9.8 violent crimes per 1,000 population age 12 and older between 2021 and 2022, an increase of 75%. The NCVS aggravated assault rate more than doubled, from 2.7 per 1,000 in 2021 to 5.5 per 1,000 in 2022.

Both too much and too little can be made of the divergence between the UCR and NCVS violent crime rates in 2022, say Rosenfeld and Lauritsen.

Divergent change in a single year should be viewed in the context of the similar long-term trends in the two indicatorsl Both sources show an appreciable decline in violent crime since the early 1990s.

Still, changes in the UCR and NCVS violent crime rates have rarely differed as much as they did last year. Part of the reason might be that fewer violent crimes were reported to the police in 2022 than in 2021. About 52% of serious violent crimes were reported to the police in 2021 and 48% in 2022. The decline in reporting crimes to the police was particularly large for aggravated assault, falling from 61% in 2021 to 50% in 2022, a decrease of 18%.

What might account for this decline in reporting violent crimes? There are several possible explanations. Police response times have increased in many cities as staffing levels have fallen. Residents may have responded by reporting fewer assaults.

Declining trust in or increasing fear of the police may have played a role as well, especially for Black victims, although the NCVS says Black victims were no less likely than white victims to report criminal victimizations to the police in 2022.

The discrepancy may partly result from the different populations covered by the two data sources. As a household-based survey, the NCVS does not include people who are homeless or those who live in institutions such as prisons, jails, and nursing homes. It also excludes crimes of violence against persons under 12.

The conflicting signals from our major statistical systems for measuring crime mean we cannot conclude with confidence whether violent crimes, other than homicide, went up or down in 2022, say Rosenfeld and Lauritsen.

The decline in the nation’s homicide rate is the good news in an otherwise confusing story about where the nation’s violent crime rate is heading. Yet, the benefits of having two complementary measures to gauge changes in the nation’s crime rates—one based on police data and the other on victims’ accounts—are considerable, even when they occasionally disagree.


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