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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 09:22 GMT 10:22 UK
Suffering in silence
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Crime levels may or may not be falling, but more than half of victims still don't tell police what has happened to them. Why is it people choose to suffer in silence?

If you were a victim of one of the 11.7 million crimes committed in the UK over the past year, it's odds-on that you never reported it to the police.

While the authorities are trumpeting a 5% decline in overall offences, the authoritative British Crime Survey also shows many victims remain reluctant to turn to them for help.

Almost six out of 10 people who have experienced a crime never tell police - a figure consistent with previous studies.

It is not just those who suffer relatively minor crimes like bicycle theft or common assault who don't come forward.

About half of the victims of violent crime decide not to seek help, while a quarter of those who have experienced a burglary also keep quiet.


At a busy petrol station in Perivale, north-west London, 31-year-old Elizabeth (not her real name) returned from the forecourt cash point to find another car blocking her in.

"The passenger got out and started wrenching at my door. He couldn't get in because it was locked, but he grabbed a rock and tried to smash the window to get at my bag," she says.

Nadia Mitchell

Elizabeth managed to get away, but was shaken by the experience, at 8pm on a Saturday night, and felt nervous when she returned to her empty home.

"I thought it was pointless reporting it to the police. Nothing had been taken or damaged and no-one had been hurt. I figured they probably wouldn't thank me for it, either. I also felt a bit scared about having to make statements and stuff."

Her attitude is far from unusual.

Over the past seven years, Peter, an IT worker from Buckinghamshire, has been burgled, mugged and threatened with a screwdriver, and had his car broken into twice. Not once did he go to police.

"It's time consuming going to the police. It's not a problem if you know something is going to get done, but you just know it's going to be a report which is filed and then just sits there."

Then there's Julianna, who has had five bikes stolen; Joanna, who was sexually assaulted in the street; Trystan, whose scooter storage bin has been broken into four times and Jesse, who was assaulted. None bothered filing a crime report.

Private matter

The reasons why people decide to put up and shut up are many and varied, according to the Home Office and victims' groups.

The British Crime Survey, which includes unreported crimes based on interviews with tens of thousands of people, says the public's willingness to report crimes depends on the type of offence.

Police say more officers on the beat will mean more crimes reported
Thefts of vehicles are most likely to be reported (95%), followed by burglaries in which something was stolen (78%), while just 34% of attempted vehicle thefts are reported, along with 31% of cases of vandalism and 30% of common assaults.

It says a quarter of the victims of unreported crimes don't come forward because they feel it is a private matter.

But the most frequent reason given - in seven out of 10 cases - is that the incident was too trivial, there was no loss, or the victim felt police would not be able to help.

'Fear of reprisals'

This "lack of confidence" in officers and the criminal justice system is an important factor in the low levels or reporting, says the charity Victim Support.

Two weeks ago I was in a packed commuter train and someone decided to say 'faggot' right in my face
Nick, north London

Many people feel officers are overstretched and will not want to deal with their problem, says spokesman Andrew Buckingham.

Others cannot face the thought of taking their case through the courts, with the time and stress that can involve.

There is also the problem of antagonising the perpetrator, and so "fear of reprisals, either by the offender or his or her family members or friends" is a major reason for people's silence.

For others it is the nature of the crime they have suffered that holds them back from calling police.

Surveys suggest the elderly, victims of domestic violence, rape and race crimes can all be reluctant to come forward.

'Historical mistrust'

In the case of homophobic crimes there is also a suggestion that the attitude of police sometimes compounds the problem.

"There's a historical mistrust that the police will be somewhat less than sympathetic," says Outrage! spokesman David Allison of people who have been the victim of an anti-gay crime, particularly outside London and other large cities.

Only one in three of the victims of homophobic crime in London approaches police, says gay and lesbian market research agency Stormbreak.

For many it is not just the fear that they won't be taken seriously that keeps them quite, but the frequency of their victimisation.

Nick, an office worker from north London, says he has been to the police in the past - after suffering particularly violent assaults - but suffers homophobic crimes so often that he rarely tells them.

"If I reported everything that happened in terms of threats of violence or abuse I would be in the police station every other day. Two weeks ago I was in a packed commuter train and someone decided to say 'faggot' right in my face."

Community policing

Despite the huge numbers involved, police are keen that more people come forward to ask for help. And they are confident they are making progress.

Burglary is one of the most commonly reported crimes
"We have a greater police presence on our streets than two years ago and more emphasis has been placed on community policing and local level crime reduction partnerships to encourage the public to come forward and report crime," says the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers.

But it also admits there is more work to be done "to make the public feel secure in reporting a crime, for instance, the treatment of witnesses in the courts".

Victim Support does not tell the people it helps to go to police, but warns that doing nothing can leave people feeling isolated, upset and angry.

"If someone does not report a crime it's very much up to groups like us to pick up the pieces." As long as they come forward, that is.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It is wrong that people should feel that the police aren't 'bothered' - they have a duty to encourage reporting. Crime and disorder partnerships across the country are working to tackle under-reporting of different types of crime, particularly homophobic, race and sexual crimes. I think the key word here is 'partnership'.
Karen, UK

There's another reason why the statistics are inaccurate - some reported crimes never happened. For example, someone who loses their mobile phone might well report it stolen so they can claim on their insurance. Disgruntled ex-employees may invent discrimination or harassment in order to sue for compensation.
Andrew Smith, UK

I was assaulted by a lecturer at the college where I was studying nursing, I didn't go to the police but I wish I had now. The reason I didn't go was that I felt so ashamed I had allowed myself to be treated in that manner and the reaction of the college authorities who blamed me because I "must have done something to encourage him".
Anonymous, Scotland

When I have been the victim of a crime I always report it as a civic duty.
Andrew, England

Name-calling, verbal abuse and half-hearted threats of violence might be unpleasant, but they don't physically hurt or do any lasting damage. I'd actually prefer that the police devote their time to catching real criminals. Does anyone remember the saying "Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you"?
Paul, United Kingdom

Reporting crimes to the police is a waste of time and effort - unless you need a crime reference for an insurance claim. I reported two crimes - attempted burglary and car vandalism. In both cases it took an age to get through and the reaction was the same - total disinterest.
Alan, UK

How can the police deal with crime when it's not reported? Refusing to go to the police but then going to a support group is extremely immature - it refuses to tackle the source of the problem.
Sion, UK

I've been mugged three times since I moved to London, and have given a statement to police each time, but never with any result, except to be told that I should try not to walk alone after dark - which simply isn't practical in London in winter! If it weren't for the fact that I need a police reference to make an insurance claim, I wouldn't bother reporting the crimes: it just makes me feel worse to have to recount the whole experience in such detail.
Tanya, UK

I went to the police recently at 5am to report an incident where a phone was stolen out of my hand by two kids on bikes. The officer at the station started by grilling me as though I was the criminal and then took 40 minutes to slowly tap into the computer everything I said. His entire attitude said "why are you bothering me with this."

What's the point in reporting a crime if its not going to take the criminal off the streets? The courts are reluctant to impose a custodial sentence - which law-abiding people would naturally prefer as criminal can't commit crime if behind bars.
Martin, England

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