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U.K. Report Is Latest Evidence That Crime Stats Heavily Undercount Rape

A U.K. parliamentary advisory body on Tuesday provided yet more evidence of what criminologists have long reported: Official sexual-assault statistics understate the extent of the problem. And the U.K. report was just one in a string of recent news articles highlighting how lacking the official statistics are.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, which assesses U.K. police for Parliament, reported that 1 in 5 crimes go unrecorded by police. “In the audit period (November 2012 – October 2013), police were found to be less likely to record violent and sexual offences as crimes than other crime types,” the HMIC report said. A quarter of sex offenses reported to police didn’t get recorded.

A similar problem has occurred in the United States. Far more than a quarter of rapes reported to New Orleans police weren’t followed up on, according to a report released last week by the city’s inspector general. The office randomly audited five sex-crimes detectives’ cases; it found the detectives designated 65 percent of reports of sex crimes as “miscellaneous,” rather than as sexual assaults, and followed up with supplemental reports on just 14 percent of calls.

New Orleans isn’t unique. Earlier this year, a law scholar published a report finding irregularities in city rape statistics nationally, suggesting that roughly 1 million sex crimes that were reported in the U.S. between 1995 and 2012 never made it into national counts.

Even that estimate doesn’t count crimes that don’t fit with the FBI’s pre-2012 definition of rape — which excluded anal rape, rape of men and some other sexual assaults. Many places that have adopted the new definition have shown an increase in sexual-assault counts, suggesting the previous counts were missing many rapes. Many other jurisdictions — nearly half of the 18,415 agencies that report to the FBI — haven’t yet updated their statistical apparatus, meaning their latest stats exclude many sexual assaults.

Many victims of rape never report the crime at all. One possible reason: The estimated hundreds of thousands of rape kits nationwide that haven’t been tested. This month, Manhattan’s district attorney is pledging $35 million toward testing 70,000 kits, and Congress is considering funding programs to conduct investigations and prevent future backlogs.

Other recent news stories provide a different kind of evidence about why some victims don’t report rape. Several women who have accused comedian Bill Cosby and Canadian talk-show host Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault came forward only in the past month, after years of silence, saying they thought they wouldn’t be believed. (Cosby’s lawyer has called accusations against his client “discredited”; Ghomeshi has said his sexual activities were “consensual.”) More people in the Canadian city of Saskatoon called a local sexual-assault center to report their own experience of sexual assault after the news of the Ghomeshi allegations. The assistant director of the center said many callers just want to talk. Those who call the center, but not police, never get counted in crime stats.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.