Photo caption: While the FBI’s data says violent crime is down in West Virginia, experts say it’s to tell the real numbers because many crimes go unreported to the police. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

BY: CAITY COYNE – OCTOBER 27, 2023 6:00 AM

Homicides are on the decline in West Virginia, according to annual crime data released by the FBI earlier this month. But experts say it’s difficult to get a full picture of how common other crimes are occurring in the state — like sexual assaults — that are less likely to be reported to police.

While the FBI’s data reports cover dozens of crimes — rapes, larceny, assaults, fraud and many more — the only two categories that can be truly trusted in the report are homicides and car thefts, said Walter DeKeseredy, a sociology professor and director of the Research Center on Violence for West Virginia University.

“Most crimes are never reported to the police,” DeKeseredy said. “They’re just not.”

The most effective way to understand how crime affects average people is through victimization surveys, he said, where people are asked about the crimes they’ve been victim to even if there wasn’t a report filed.

Victimization surveys, however, aren’t widely utilized, said DeKeseredy, who has authored and facilitated a number of them in West Virginia and beyond. The Bureau for Justice Statistics performs an annual victimization survey, but data is only available for the national level. Per the 2022 survey, about 42% of “violent victimizations” committed were reported to police nationwide.

Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha, calls the unreported crimes “the dark figure” when it comes to understanding how to apply and comprehend crime rates. Without a better understanding of who crime is affecting, it can be difficult to allocate the right resources to prevent crime and support victims.

The unknowns in crime statistics allow for potentially dangerous results, where politicians and others can “cherry pick” data to fit a certain narrative and reach a specific conclusion, Nix said.

DeKeseredy has seen this happen often, and it’s especially concerning when the general public is not educated — as most people aren’t — on criminological statistics. It’s easy to think that one number or a year-to-year fluctuation could be an indicator of something that is not really happening, he said.

“Except for car theft and homicides, police statistics should only be valuable to determine how the police respond to crime,” DeKeseredy said. “They’re not, and should never be, used to explain the extent of crimes committed.”

What we know about homicides in 2022

While year-to-year homicides are beginning to decrease, the annual average for the past seven years is about 27% higher than the seven years before, according to the data.

The yearly drop in homicides comes after a state and national spike in 2020. According to the data, between 2020 and 2022 there was a near-38% decrease in the number of homicides committed in West Virginia, from 124 to 77, and a 53% decrease in car thefts, from 2,117 to 1,383.

Since 2016, an average of 56 homicides per year in West Virginia have involved some kind of firearm. From 2010 to 2016, that average was about 35 per year. Other homicides — from knives, blunt objects, strangulation and more — also show increases but at a lower rate, according to the data.

The numbers reported by the FBI in 2022 were submitted by the West Virginia State Police from 214 law enforcement agencies in the state, covering about 87% of the total population, according to Jaclyn McClung, director of the Criminal Identification Bureau with the State Police. The remaining 13% of the population is patrolled by 221 “small agencies where training and manpower could be an issue,” McClung said in an email.

“We offer free training and have been contacting non-reporting agencies to see how we can increase participation,” she continued.

What underreporting can look like

Nationwide, sexual assaults are some of the lowest reported crimes to law enforcement agencies and this can be especially true on college campuses, where study after study over the last several decades shows at least 1 in 4 female students being victimized.

DeKeseredy pointed to WVU, where official police statistics released each year through the Clery Act show only a handful of sexual offenses taking place on campus. Between the 2013 and 2016 school years, according to the reports, there were at most 38 sexual offenses — including groping, rapes, assaults and more — reported at WVU. 

According to a victimization survey done that same year, nearly 30% of female students on campus reported being groped or fondled without their consent during their time enrolled at the school. About 7% of female students reported being vaginally raped and 16% reported being the victims of an attempted rape.

“The problem is these statistics coming from the police greatly underestimate the extent of the problem,” DeKeseredy said. “There is a lot we don’t know about, and we can’t make assumptions.”

Having accurate data is important to know where policing efforts should be focused for the best of a community. For example, if one particular group of people — people of color, women or those who identify as LGBTQ+ — are experiencing a majority of one type of crime, support networks can tailor services for them specifically, and police can work on prevention efforts that may not apply to the population as a whole. 

The number of crimes reported to police generally only show the kinds of people that trust police enough to report crimes, DeKeseredy said. If there is an increase in a certain crime or offense reported year-to-year, it can show that the people experiencing that crime may be more trustworthy of police than before, but it can’t be used to show that the crime is occurring more often or on a wider scale, according to DeKeseredy.

“We have to be careful when we use any statistics that come from the police, if we even use it. It can be dangerous,” DeKeseredy said. “It’s really scary around election time; arrests go up, charges increase and so on as [politicians] try to prove themselves. We see that every election year because, unfortunately, crime is politics in this country.”

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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