Why Do People Under-Report Crimes? For Some, Fear of Police

Even when some New Yorkers witness crimes, there's a variety of reasons for why they choose not to report them to law enforcement.

Emily Schutz | Wednesday, October 20, 2021


A Cityline Ozone Park Civilian Patrol vehicle is pictured at the site of a shooting on 84th Street and 102nd Road, which took place around midnight on September 24th. The Civilian Patrol arrived on the scene and worked in tandem with the local precinct to manage traffic on the road while providing updates on the victim to the public. 

Under a darkening sky one recent September evening, a fight broke out among a group of four men at 95th street and Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven, Queens, an intersection marked by cell phone shops, delis, and a long and loud subway overpass. One of the men pulled out a boxcutter and plunged it into the stomach of another who slumped from the street and onto the sidewalk. 

Salvatore Isabella, a Woodhaven resident, witnessed the fight on his way to a hiring event at a nearby catering company, where he was able to quickly run into the hall. As he walked out of the event, later on, he saw that other men had joined the victim, who was sprawled out, unconscious on the sidewalk. Not wanting to get tied up in the matter, Isabella walked home without calling the police. 

“I was just nervous,” Isabella said quietly. “I didn’t know what was gonna happen.” 

A wave of crime has hit New York City since the reopening of businesses during the pandemic, a hot button issue for upcoming city council and mayoral elections. Isabella said that he was concerned about the increased number of crimes within his neighborhood. But that concern did not convince him to report what he witnessed, rather it has influenced the candidates that he will vote for next month, he said. He intends to vote for Joann Ariola, a city council candidate who is tough on crime and wants to increase the number of New York City Police Department officers patrolling the neighborhood.

Isabella’s choice to leave the scene without reporting is not an uncommon one. Nationally, just 40.9% of “violent crimes” and 32.5% of “household property crimes” are reported to police, according to the Pew Research Center. A study published by Penn State University found that this percentage plummets to an estimated 5% when the victim lives in a community that has an immigrant population of 65% or greater. This area of Queens counts roughly 53% foreign-born residents, the latest Census shows. 

Eric Piza, author of “Police Technologies for Place-Based Crime Prevention,” attributed this phenomenon of not reporting to heightened levels of mistrust toward law enforcement among immigrant communities. 

“There’s been a lot of discussion and rhetoric around immigration and immigration enforcement in the country for the last several years. So, you could understand if that population is a little hesitant to come into contact with the law,” said Piza. 

Fear of deportation is strong even though NYPD officers are prohibited from asking questions of immigration status. 

Juan Chiquillo, an immigration attorney at Chiquillo Law in Queens, says that many of his clients do not report crimes, whether they are a victim or a witness. He believes that the majority are worried about interaction with law enforcement and therefore try to avoid it unless reporting is necessary.

Sharmin Hossain, 30, is the daughter of Bengali-Muslim immigrants in the community. She recalls a ride on the L train as a high schooler when she became the victim of a hate crime related to her hijab. She did not report the incident because the perpetrators were people of color. 

“I would never report two people of color to the police because I know what happens to people of color in the police system,” she said, referencing what she calls nothing less than a “torture chamber.” 

Different residents have various reasons for not reporting a crime when they are victims. Mary Delgado Rodriquez, for example, did not feel that it would be worth her time to report the recent theft of her beloved 2004 Toyota Prius’ catalytic converter. 

“If there’s no physical evidence, how can you accuse someone of something?” With no leads on who might have stolen the converter, Rodriquez figured that the case would never be solved, making reporting pointless.

Peter Moskos, a professor in criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that it’s common for victims and witnesses of crimes to think that reporting won’t be worth their time. Moreover, many people do not want to deal with court proceedings if the case ever gets that far, as victims of crime are “usually unsatisfied” by the result anyway, Moskos said. 

Not everyone in the community is apathetic to reporting crime, though. Ali Iqbal is part of the Cityline Ozone Park Civilian Patrol, and he drives around the neighborhood in a car bearing those words in bright blue capital letters on the sides of the vehicle. Iqbal and his fellow patrol group members canvas the neighborhood, looking out for suspicious activity. They report what they see to the precinct and encourage residents to do the same. 

Iqbal hopes that residents in the community can have some of their concerns about dealing with the police alleviated, through the work of his organization, which provides rides to the precinct and translation services to those that need them. 

On social media, residents have expressed mixed emotions for the work of the precinct, some stating that they’ve received no help in the past, to others feeling that the department has a lack of concern for their community. 

Last fall, Zuleika Pichardo approached her car for her early morning shift at Home Depot when it was still dark outside. By the time she entered the vehicle, she was shocked to find an intoxicated man sleeping in the backseat. After dialing 911, she waited for the NYPD for more than twenty minutes, but no one showed up to assist her. Eventually, the man left her vehicle, but she fears what might have happened to her if the man chose to act differently. 

The experience left her “embarrassed” and “ashamed” that she ever trusted the NYPD to help her. Pichardo is a firm believer that the law enforcement system needs improvement. 

“Who do I call now,” she asked. “Where are my superheroes?” 


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.