White District of Columbia residents are almost twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes as black District residents, according to a new study by the U.S. Justice Department that District officials immediately challenged.
The conclusion runs counter to the national pattern, which shows blacks victimized at greater rates than whites, and the surveyors and other department officials were at a loss to explain the trend they found in the District.
District police officials questioned the finding, saying that the city's crime reports show whites victimized at a rate only slightly higher than blacks for crimes against persons, entirely because of robberies, and that the most serious crimes are committed against blacks.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, based on telephone interviews, found that white District residents were victims of violent crime at a rate of 110.2 per thousand white residents age 12 and older, compared with 57.4 per thousand for black District residents.
Because the District is about 70 percent black, the number of crimes the Justice surveyors found against city blacks still were higher than the number against whites, but a higher victimization rate would mean a larger proportion of whites than blacks were victims.
The violent crimes used in making the survey's conclusion included robberies, assaults (including rape and attempted assaults with or without a weapon) and "threat to injure," and the report found higher victimization rates for whites in all those categories.
"I would be very surprised if it were true," said Gary L. Abrecht, the D.C. police department's director of the planning and development division, after reviewing the report. "Our figures would not support such a large disparity."
Whites are victimized by robbery in the city at a substantially greater rate than blacks, but blacks are much more likely to be the victims of homicides and rapes, Abrecht said. Homicides were not included in the Justice survey, because surveyors relied on victim interviews.
The racial pattern the survey found in the Washington suburban areas more closely mirrored the nation's, with black suburban residents victimized at a somewhat higher rate than white suburbanites.
One possible explanation of the different conclusions by the Justice Department and D.C. police could be in crimes categorized as "violent," Abrecht said.
Police crime figures on "aggravated assault" include only attacks involving a weapon or requiring medical care, while the survey included a broader definition of physical attacks. Abrecht also questioned the inclusion of the "threat to injure" category as a nebulous and "grossly subjective" one that could include minor incidents such as a rock or bottle being thrown with no injuries resulting.
"The big disproportions are probably accounted for by a lot of minor stuff" that would go unreported, he suggested. "We get the bulk of the most serious of those offense categories."
There are a number of differences in the figures used by police and those complied by the Justice Department survey. The police statistics are on reported crimes that occur in the District, regardless of where the person lives. The victim survey included all crimes committed in a certain time period against area residents, regardless of where they occurred and whether or not they were reported.
The Justice report said it found that only 48 percent of the "violent crimes" against Washington area residents were reported to police. Abrecht said that struck him as "awfully high for crimes of violence," particularly for an incident like robbery in which a crime would be reported before an insurance claim could be made.
Homicide figures, not included by the victim survey, are the firmest because almost all are reported, and the homicide rate for blacks is more than twice that for whites in the District, Abrecht said.
"Everything that we see shows that [most violent crime] is black on black," said Lt. Daniel Kerr of the police department's community relations branch, who coordinates the city's neighborhood watch programs. "My reaction [to the report's finding] is I am surprised."
Kerr, who had not seen the report, said a definition of who is white could skew the results. The city is seeing more victimizations of the Hispanic population, for example, in the Adams-Morgan area, and of Orientals, he said.
Those identifying their race as Hispanic were classified as white, the report said.
At the same time, Abrecht said the city's figures show an even greater racial difference than Justice found in the higher rate at which whites are victims of robberies.
The Justice Department survey, done at the request of Congress, was intended to focus on crime against Capitol Hill employes. The report analyzed rape, robbery, assault, vandalism and different types of larceny (such as purse snatchings) that occurred between May 1982 and April 1983.
Robbery is an act of theft accompanied by injury or attempt or threat to injure. Burglary is unlawful entry into a residence usually attended by theft. Vandalism involves intentional damage to property.
Among the report's findings were that:
*The overall rate of violent victimization of District residents was not significantly different from that for suburban residents, but city residents were considerably more likely to be victims of robbery.
More than half of the metropolitan area's household vandalisms occurred in the Northern Virginia jurisdictions, which had only 36.5 percent of the households. Only 11.3 percent of household vandalisms occurred in the District, with 22.8 percent of the households.
*More than half of the robberies in the Washington metropolitan area occurred in the District.
*The District did not have a disproportionate number of the area's burglaries, and each jurisdiction had a percentage of burglaries that closely mirrored its population size.
*Violent crimes resulted in injuries to 36.7 percent of the victims living in the District and to 20.1 percent of the victims who live in the suburbs.
*When compared with 19 urban areas of similar size, the Washington area had about the same rate of violent crime overall, but a lower burglary rate and a higher rate of theft.
*Capitol Hill employes had about the same rate of victimization as other employed people in the area, except for a higher rate of thefts, but viewed their jobs as safer from crime than others.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he had asked for the study two years ago after "a whole series of incidents of crime" against Senate staff members, including some who worked for him.
At the time, he said he had hoped to see more District police assigned to the Capitol Hill area, but the only action he plans to take with the report now is to send it to the congressional committees with jurisdiction over the District.
On the racial differences in the District, the researchers decided to look further at factors other than race that might account for the finding, such as whether the whites in the survey were disproportionately young, since younger people are crime victims more than older ones.
But after taking into consideration age, sex, education level, income and how often a person moved, survey analysts decided that the pattern they found "probably reflected real differences between the races, with D.C. whites tending to suffer higher personal victimization rates than D.C. blacks."
"We don't have an explanation for it," said Patrick A. Langan, a Justice Department statistician who worked on the survey. The same methodology has been used in other cities where the racial pattern was reversed, he pointed out.
Richard Bennett, an expert in criminal justice and statistics who teaches at American University, said after reviewing the report that he believes it did find a real difference between the races, but that it appeared to be concentrated in the area of assaults rather than the other violent crimes.
"You may be distorting the level of fear" involved in the crimes against whites by saying the victimization rate is twice as high for them, because not all the crimes studied result in injuries, he said.