In the dictionary rendition, assault means an attack with blows or weapons, as well as by threats, hostile words, and other ways of menacing. Although assault rightly can refer to all forms of physical, psychological, and verbal aggression, its use in the legal system and by criminologists is more specific.
First and foremost, assault is an unlawful action. It is a form of aggression, either real or threatened, either with or without a weapon, that the state or some other legal entity has designated as a violation of the law. Assaults that are illegal are mostly those that cause or were intended to cause bodily harm, plus threats to that effect.
Second, there are “gray areas,” where aggressive actions may or may not be considered assault by law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies, the perpetrator, or the victim. For example, two acquaintances at a bar who briefly engage in a minor altercation, fueled by several rounds of alcoholic beverages, with one shoving the other to the floor after a heated debate about the relative merits of their favorite presidential candidates, is an assault, “technically speaking.” However, the context of the incident—including the race, age, and other characteristics of the two parties; whether a person was injured; the degree to which the incident disturbed other patrons; the reputation of the bar with local police; and a host of other factors—will actually determine whether or not the incident “officially” is regarded as an assault crime, with arrests made by the police. Equally, if not more problematic, is assault involving members of the same household. In these cases, both the perpetrator and the victim may not consider the action unlawful or even inappropriate. Further, societal norms have shifted over the years, in part through the efforts of advocacy groups, such that actions that were once considered “private” are today viewed with much less tolerance by the general public, the police, prosecutors, and the courts. It is wise when considering any kind of data or information related to assault (and any other crime) to remember the basic distinction between prevalence, or the real rate at which something occurs, and incidence, the rate at which the same phenomenon is officially counted.
In the nomenclature of violent crime classifications, assault is considered distinctive from other forms of violence when reported in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), and other types of official crime accounting systems that estimate the incidence rates for various kinds of crime. Specifically, homicide, rape or sexual assault, and robbery are counted separately as crimes of violence. As well, family violence and intimate partner violence (IPV) are regarded as different categories of crime. Even so, all of these crimes involve an attack by one person on another. Hence, assault refers to a more narrow range of interpersonal violence where physical force and threats are used by a person (or groups of persons) with the intention of causing harm to another. However, criminal codes of states vary on definitions of assault, especially in regard to whether a threat, or menacing, would be considered within the definition. Some states consider menacing or attempts to menace, which is placing another person in fear of bodily injury, as a form of assault, while other states take a stricter approach, defining a threat by the presence or use of a weapon before the action is severe enough to warrant arrest and prosecution.
Also, there are occasions when assault is considered permissible or legal, such as self-defense against an attacker or to prevent a crime from occurring against another person and even against property. Within the family, corporal punishment of children can become a controversial area with regard to what is considered legal and not legal. As well, there are cases of assault in which one party may have given another party consent, such as some forms of sexual activity.
Simple And Aggravated Assault
The UCR and the reporting systems of state agencies responsible for criminal justice statistics divide assault into two basic types, simple and aggravated. In the UCR, which is based on crimes known to the police and arrests made by the police, aggravated assault is defined as an unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault is accompanied by the use of a weapon or to produce death or great bodily harm. The definition is vague about the amount of injury or bodily harm, reflecting variations in the way the states legally define assault. According to the UCR, a simple assault is any assault or attempted assault that is not of an aggravated nature and does not result in serious injury to the victim.
The FBI includes aggravated assault in its index of seven major crimes used to monitor the nation’s crime trends, but does not provide specific trend data on simple assault. However, the UCR does include information on the sex and age of persons arrested for both aggravated and simple assault. According to the most recent annual accounting of crime by the FBI, there were slightly over 850,000 aggravated assaults in 2004, which converts to about 291 assaults per 100,000 inhabitants. This represents a decrease of 1.5% from the previous year, and a 30.4% decline since 1995. However, preliminary data from the 2005 UCR indicated a 1.9% increase in aggravated assault. This simply may be an aberration in a long-term downward trend, or an indication that this trend has reached its end. Altogether, there were about 438,000 arrests for aggravated assault, and 1,285,000 arrests for simple assault in 2004. This represents a 9% decline in the number of assault arrests, and an 18% decrease in the rate of assault per 100,000 (from 719 in 1995 to 588 in 2004).
Based on a representative sample of the U.S. population, the NCVS asks respondents about their experiences with crime. Rates for several different kinds of crime, including one for aggravated and one for simple assault, are calculated. The NCVS screen questions reflect the generally accepted distinction, asking respondents if “anyone attacked or threatened you” with a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or objects like a baseball bat, frying pan, scissors, or stick; by throwing an object, such as a rock or bottle; by grabbing, punching, or choking; or with any “face-to-face” threat. The NCVS defines simple assault as any incident meeting two conditions: (1) an attack without a weapon, (2) which results in either no injury or an injury requiring less than 2 days of hospitalization. Aggravated assault is defined as an incident that involves either a threat with or actual assault with a weapon, or an incident, with or without a weapon, in which the victim required 2 or more days of hospitalization.
In 2004, the NCVS estimated that the rate of aggravated assault was 4.3 per 1,000 persons aged 12 and older, and for simple assault, it was 14.3. Both represent considerable decreases from 1996, when the rates were 8.8 and 26.6 per 1,000 persons, respectively. Although the data collection methodologies of the UCR and the NCVS are neither perfect nor identical, both point to a long-term decrease in assaults. Further, the downward turn in assault is part of a general statistical decline shown in the UCR and NCVS for both property and violent crime.
Regardless of the relative strengths and weaknesses of information about assault from the FBI, the NCVS, and other data sources, and its apparent decline over the past several years, the consequences of assault are quite real to the victim. There are the physical consequences, not only in terms of the actual injury, but also the physical reaction to an assault or threatened assault. These physical symptoms include trouble sleeping and concentrating, feeling tired and sleeping more than usual, and weight gain or loss. Emotional and behavioral reactions are intimately tied to the physical symptoms, including difficulty concentrating at work or school; feeling helpless, angry, and suspicious; bad dreams and nightmares; and feeling exposed and vulnerable, both in a general manner and specifically in reference to the place or area where the assault occurred. In addition to avoiding areas where the incident occurred, assault victims may avoid other places with similar characteristics, such as places with large crowds, entertainment spots, theaters, and bars. Some assault victims may even feel a need to move to a new community or neighborhood. Altogether, the NCVS estimates that the 4.47 million assaults that occurred in 2004 resulted in an average of $196 in medical bills and other direct costs to victims, for a total bill of $876 million. This estimate likely represents the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2005). Uniform crime report. Retrieved from https://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius_04/
- Rosenberg, M. L., & Mercy, J. A. (1991). Assaultive violence. In M. Rosenberg & M. A. Fenley (Eds.), Violence in America (pp. 14–50). New York: Oxford University Press.
- S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2006). National Crime Victimization Survey, 2004. Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv04.pdf
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