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Aggravated assault is a form of interpersonal violence that involves either serious injury to the victim or the threat of force by means of a weapon. It is defined in various ways by state statutes and criminal justice agencies, but is usually distinguished from simple assault by the degree of injury to the victim and the seriousness of the threat. Nationwide information on aggravated assault is provided by two primary sources of information: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS).
In the UCR, aggravated assault is an unlawful attack with the intent of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. The definition also adds that the attack is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon or by other methods intended to produce death or great bodily harm. Therefore, aggravated assault, as a class of crime, stands between simple assault and homicide, depending on the amount of physical injury to the victim and the means by which the attack was carried out.
The UCR provides two kinds of information on aggravated assault: (1) its incidence, based on the number of such crimes recorded or “known” by the police; and (2) the characteristics of persons arrested. A preliminary count from the 2005 UCR findings showed a 1.9% increase, or about 871,000 aggravated assaults. This increase is an interruption of an 11-year decline in aggravated assault, a downward trend also exhibited by the three other major crimes of violence reported by the UCR, namely, homicide, forcible rape, and robbery.
Rates for the incidence of aggravated assault are unequally distributed by location, and these patterns have been consistent over the years. For example, in 2004, aggravated assault rates were higher in metropolitan areas (309 per 100,000 inhabitants) than in cities outside of metropolitan areas (277) and non-metropolitan counties (158). The Southern region shows the highest aggravated assault rate at 354 per 100,000 persons, followed by the West at 305, the Midwest at 233, and the Northeast at 221. Yet, the method used to inflict bodily harm varies little by locality. Slightly over one third of all police-recorded aggravated assaults involve clubs or other blunt objects. Hands, fists, and feet are used as weapons in about one in four assaults, and in slightly less than one in five assaults firearms and knives or other cutting instruments are used.
There were slightly over 438,000 arrests for aggravated assault in 2004. This number is slightly less than the year before, and represents a 14% decrease since 1995, a decline consonant with the long-term downward trend in the incidence of aggravated assault. Regionally, it is the West, not the South, that consistently shows the highest arrest rate. For example, in 2004, the arrest rate was 213 per 100,000 persons in the West, compared to 136 in the South, 115 in the Midwest, and 114 in the Northeast. About 90% of aggravated assault arrestees are male and 14% are under the age of 18. These percentages have changed only minimally over the past decade.
The NCVS is the second source of nationwide information about aggravated assault, which it distinguishes from simple assault in a manner similar to that of the UCR. According to NCVS criteria, an aggravated assault is any incident in which the victim was either threatened with a weapon or the injury required 2 or more days of hospitalization.
According to the 2004 NCVS statistics, there were slightly over 1 million aggravated assault incidents, for a rate of 4.3 per 1,000 persons age 12 and over. The vast majority of these assaults, about 65%, were threats with a weapon only, with the remainder involving some form of injury. Consistent with the UCR statistics, the NCVS rate of reported aggravated assault has declined. For example, in 1996, the rate was 8.8 per 1,000 persons. However, in 2002 the rate was 4.3, and in 2003 it was 4.6. Hence, results over the past 3 years represent an interruption to this long-term decrease, paralleling the statistical trends found in the UCR. About 55% to 60% of aggravated assault victimizations are reported to the police.
Despite long-term fluctuations in aggravated assault rates, the pattern of victimization by various demographic characteristics of victims has not changed much. Rates for males are nearly twice as high as those for females. In 2004, for example, the overall rate was 5.8 per 1,000 males and 2.8 per 1,000 females. Similar proportions by sex were evident for those suffering injury and those who were threatened with a weapon. For both sexes, rates were at least twice as high for victims 12 to 24 years of age as for those in other age groups. Both Black males and females exhibit higher rates of aggravated assault than their White counterparts. A comparison of aggravated assault rates of Hispanic and non-Hispanic respondents in the NCVS shows somewhat inconsistent results, with rates higher for the former group during most years. However, the latter group displays higher rates for certain years. Aggravated assault rates are consistently highest for those living in urban areas, followed by rates for persons living in suburban areas. However, in the 2004 NCVS, the rate for people living in rural areas was higher than for those living in suburban areas.
According to the NCVS, the proportion of aggravated assault victimizations involving strangers ranges between 50% and 60%, depending on the reporting year. Males are much more likely to be the victims of aggravated assault by strangers than are females. Patterns are less clear by age and Black or non-Black status. Older males and females are somewhat more likely to report being victimized by strangers, but this declines for the oldest age group, namely, victims 65 years old and older. Likewise, differences in the proportion of stranger victimizations when comparing Blacks and Whites vary from year to year.
Despite its decline, aggravated assault is a costly crime. Both the UCR and NCVS statistics indicate that it is the second most frequent crime of violence, exceeded only by simple assault. Similar to all crimes of violence, its psychological, social, and economic impact on victims can be considerable.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2005). Crime in the United States. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/04cius
- S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2006). National Crime Victimization Survey, 2004. Retrieved from http://www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cvus.04/pdf
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