Excerpted From: Brendan Lantz, Marin R. Wenger and Zachary T. Malcom, Severity Matters: The Moderating Effect of Offense Severity in Predicting Racial Differences in Reporting of Bias and Nonbias Victimization to the Police, 46 Law and Human Behavior 15 (February 2022) (References) (Full Document)

LantzWengerMalcomMany instances of criminal victimization are not reported to the police; hate crimes, which are criminal incidents in which victims are targeted because of their group membership, are reported even less frequently to the police than other crimes . Researchers have long attempted to understand the situational and contextual correlates of these reporting decisions, and although research on racial differences in hate crime reporting has been limited, research on police notification more generally has noted that victim race may play an important role in such behavior. A body of research has suggested, in particular, that the willingness of Black victims to invoke formal social control--in the form of police notification--may be impacted by perceptions of police legitimacy and potential concerns about police bias. Considered as a whole, however, the empirical research has largely been inconclusive.

Research on the role of offense severity, however, has been considerably more conclusive, noting that offense seriousness--in the form of injury, weapon use, and related characteristics--is one of the strongest predictors of police notification. Yet research examining race and reporting behavior typically examines the influences of race and offense severity independently. In other words, most prior research has attempted to account for the role of offense severity using various control measures, an approach that does not account for the potential for severity to have a differential impact across groups. If, however, concerns about police legitimacy and marginalization by the police significantly impact reporting decisions for Black victims, it follows that these factors likely have their greatest impact on reporting for less severe victimization while having a lesser impact for more severe victimization.

There is also significant reason to suspect that hate crime reporting behavior might vary jointly by both race and offense severity. Prior research suggests two competing patterns here. On the one hand, there is considerable research suggesting that Black individuals, in contrast to White individuals in particular, are exposed to racially discriminatory harassment, abuse, and aggression on a near-daily basis. This disproportionate exposure to both noncriminal and criminal discrimination may lead Black victims of less severe hate crimes to perceive their victimization as somehow typical, or as an extension of what they face in their daily experiences. Thus, Black victims may be less likely than other victims to report less severe victimization to the police but equally likely--or more likely--to report more severe victimization. On the other hand, a number of researchers have emphasized that hate crimes may inherently be perceived as more severe than similar nonbias crimes, especially for Black victims, in comparison to White victims, given the historical context of race relations in the United States. Following this, it is also possible that the animus behind bias-motivated crime may itself lead racial minorities to perceive hate crimes as serious enough to report to the police regardless of other markers of offense severity.

Research suggests that race and offense severity should be considered jointly to better understand differences in reporting bias and nonbias crimes to the police. We focus specifically on Black--White differences given the unique historical and contemporary nature of relations between law enforcement and members of the Black community--in terms of racism, discrimination, and police brutality--as well as their position as the most common targets for hate crime victimization in America (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2019). More specifically, the current research explores two interrelated questions. First, does offense severity moderate racial differences in reporting likelihood? Second, to what extent do these patterns differ for bias crimes in comparison to nonbias crimes? In other words, does bias motivation further moderate the influence of severity on racial differences in reporting likelihood?

[. . .]

In the end, these findings indicate that offense severity plays an important role in the decision-making process following victimization among victims of both bias and nonbias crimes. As Desmond et al. (2016) noted, "it is one thing to disparage law enforcement in your thoughts and speech ... It is quite another to witness a crime, or even to be victimized, and refuse to report it" (p. 870). Our analyses suggest that attitudes toward police and reporting behavior may align most closely when the offense is less severe but that the impetus to notify the police may outweigh negative attitudes toward law enforcement once the incident reaches a certain level of severity. These patterns are different, however, for Black hate crime victims. We posit that the broader context of Black hate crime victimization--which is often an extension of normative discrimination and oppression--likely plays an important role in this finding, by leading to increased vigilance and acute consequences (e.g., increased anger, fear). Future research should continue to explore how broader societal experiences might structure responses to victimization, both bias and nonbias, and subsequent decisions to formally invoke the criminal justice system.

Jennifer S. Hunt served as Action Editor.

Brendan Lantz (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0001-9086-5662

Marin R. Wenger (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8939-4733

Zachary T. Malcom (iD) https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6443-7688