2. Typologies and Patterns of Crime

2.3 Violent Crimes: Definitions and Patterns 

Dr. Jon Heidt


Homicides tend to be among the most well-reported types of crime (Nivette, 2011). After all, at least one person will usually notice and care if someone vanishes. Because homicides are usually reported, they are less likely than other types of crime to be susceptible to the dark figure of crime (Tonry, 2004). The dark figure of crime refers to the number of crimes that are uncounted because nobody notices or reports them. For example, a stroll through downtown Vancouver at any time of the day will reveal a great deal of unreported drug crime—there are obviously many cases of drug possession and trafficking that go unnoticed and unreported because both participants in the crime are willing parties. In other words, a “criminal” act is not necessarily a “deviant” act if it is typical, “normal” behaviour among the local population.

Homicide is usually associated with murder in everyday conversation and in television and movies. However, it is important to remember that homicide is an umbrella term that refers to one human killing another, while murder is a specific type of intentional homicide. The Criminal Code of Canada identifies several levels of murder that are sorted according to the offender’s culpability and intention to do harm. First degree murder is planned and deliberate, whereas second degree murder may be intentional, but it lacks the element of pre-planning and may occur in the heat of the moment. Manslaughter is non-intentional homicide resulting from intoxication, recklessness, or negligence (e.g., two people in a bar get in a fight and one kills the other by accident).

In 2019, the homicide rate in Canada was 1.8 per 100,000 population (Moreau et al., 2020), an increase from 1.78 in the previous year; however, it is worth noting that this rate is still relatively low if rates over 30 years are examined. In 1993, the homicide rate was about 3.75 per 100,000 population (Roy & Marcellus, 2018). The overall homicide rate reveals little about trends among types of victims. In 2019, police reported 174 Indigenous victims of homicide, an increase from 141 in 2018. This represents a rate approximately six-and-a-half times higher than the rate for non-Indigenous homicide victims (8.82 homicides per 100,000 compared to 1.34 per 100,000 population) (Moreau et al., 2020).

In Canada, the Western provinces tend to have higher rates of violent crime and homicides compared to Eastern and Maritime provinces (Trussler, 2010). There are no conclusive explanations for why crime rates are higher in the West, and little research has been done in this area (Andresen, 2009). A mundane factor may simply be the weather—as one goes west, temperatures become milder, and winters are less harsh, enabling more opportunities to commit crime (e.g., more people leave their homes unoccupied in warmer weather, increasing opportunities for burglary). Some scholars argue that these variances may in fact be an illusion caused by differences in reporting and recording crime amongst the provinces (Andresen, 2009).

The offending behaviour of people who commit intentional homicides can fall into certain well-known patterns, such as serial murder and mass murder. Serial murder refers to when a person kills several victims in three or more separate events, as seen in the case of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls discussed in the chapter on Feminist Criminology (see 11 Feminist Criminology) and Cultural Criminology (see 12 Cultural Criminology). Mass murder involves the killing of more than three people in a single event. Public perceptions about the frequency of these types of murder are often inflated, because these events receive a great deal of attention from news outlets and other mass media (Schildkraut, 2016). For example, consider the variety of murder documentaries on Netflix: true crime documentaries and series like The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer, and Night Stalker: Hunt for a Serial Killer. However, these high-profile cases tend to be statistically rare, and it is important to realise that serial homicide accounts for less than 1% of all murders (Bonn, 2014). Further, as of 2019 there have been 12 mass shootings in Canada in the last 30 years (Saminather, 2018). Finally, Canada has convicted 106 serial killers since it was founded; however, it ranks fairly high when compared to other countries in the world. It is worth noting that the U.S. has produced 3,204 serial killers over its history (Sheth, 2020).

Sexual Assault

Prior to 1983, the Criminal Code of Canada defined “rape” as occurring when “a male has intercourse with a female person who is not his wife.” This definition will seem quite strange to a person living in modern society. First, it implies that a husband cannot legally rape his wife after the couple are married. Second, this law overlooks the fact that men are also victims of rape, or that women can rape other women. It is worth noting that while Canada’s rape law was clearly archaic even in 1983, it was not until 1993 that all 50 states in the United States had changed their rape laws to include married couples.

The Criminal Code of Canada currently uses the term “sexual assault” and identifies three levels. Level-one sexual assault is the least serious and involves unwanted touching and/or fondling. Level two involves the use of weapons or some type of bodily harm (e.g., penetration). Level three is the most serious and involves long-term physical injuries, such as maiming, wounding, or disfigurement.

In 2019, the rate of police-reported sexual assault was 82 incidents per 100,000 population, an increase of 7% from 2018 (Moreau et al., 2020). It is important to note that while this trend is concerning, the rate is still well below where it was in the mid-1990s. For example, at the 1993 peak, police-reported sexual assaults were at 120 incidents per 100,000 population (Moreau et al., 2020). Further, some speculate that this recent increase may be a result of initiatives and improvements in laws that encourage women to come forward and speak about their experiences of sexual assault (Beitsch, 2018; Levy and Mattson, 2019). In other words, while sexual assaults have traditionally been a heavily underreported crime, the dark figure of crime for sexual assault may be dropping (Moreau et al., 2020). Reasons for the underreporting of sexual assault include guilt, shame, hesitancy to have one’s past made public in a court case, and the fact that in 70% to 80% of cases, the victim knows the offender as an acquaintance, friend, or family member (Schmalleger & Volk, 2014). In some cases, victims may blame themselves because they were drinking or see the incident as a result of cultural, peer- pressure or mental health-related issues.

Recently, much attention has been paid to rates of sexual assault on college campuses and their association with athletics, particularly football (Wiersma-Mosley & Jozkowski, 2019). An example of this disturbing trend occurred at the University of Montana in Missoula. John Krakauer’s (2015) book Missoula: Rape and The Justice System in a College Town chronicles widespread cases of non-stranger sexual assault on campus and explains how some of these cases were mishandled by the university and the criminal justice system. Victims were treated with indifference and disrespect by the local police, claims were not believed or taken seriously, and there is also evidence that accused players on the high-profile football team were allowed to flee the state (Montana) before charges could be filed against them. Fortunately, the university has taken steps in recent years to address these issues; however, it is disturbing that a well-known author had to write an exposé to draw attention to this issue to create change. Moreover, this story demonstrates how the reporting and prosecution of crimes can be affected by the interests of powerful institutions.


The Criminal Code of Canada identifies three levels of assault. Level one (sometimes called “simple assault”) is the least serious and involves punching, pushing, shoving, or threats by act or gesture; there is no bodily harm required. Level two (sometimes called “assault with a weapon” or “assault causing bodily harm”) requires that the offender either use a weapon or cause some type of harm (e.g., a black eye from a punch). Level three (sometimes called “aggravated assault”) is the most serious and occurs when the offender seriously wounds, maims, or disfigures the victim.

In 2019, the rate of level-one assault in Canada was 500 per 100,000 population; the level-two rate was 158 per 100,000 population; and the level-three assault rate was 10 per 100,000 population. Until increases in 2019, overall rates of major assaults (level 2 and 3) had decreased steadily from a peak of approximately 180 per 100,000 population in 2008 (Moreau, 2019). Moreau (2019) speculates that part of the recent increases can be attributed to changes in how assaults were classified and counted during this period. More specifically, the revised definition of assault includes events where is there is no evidence to confirm the incident or reports from third parties that match these criteria. Assaults often occur at night and in the presence of alcohol or in and around establishments that serve alcohol (see 13 Green Criminology). Most assaults are also highly emotional, impulsive events and tend to be unplanned or involve little planning (Felson & Eckert, 2018).


Robbery refers to when an offender uses force or violence (or threats) during the commission of a theft. People seem to confuse robbery with breaking and entering or other forms of property theft. This may arise from the colloquialism “my house or car was robbed”; however, it is important to remember that, legally, one robs a person, not an object. This leads to the misconception amongst people that robbery is a property crime, when it is in fact a violent crime due to the use of or threatened use of force.

In Canada, there were about 62 robberies per 100,000 population in 2019, a rate that was relatively unchanged from 2018 (Moreau, Jaffray, & Armstrong, 2020). Like most other crimes, robberies tend to occur later at night and are much more common in urban settings (see 16 Environmental Criminology). Research has revealed that commercial and street robberies are committed by two different types of offenders. Commercial robbers (who commit the robbery in a place of business, such as a bank or a convenience store) tend to do more planning and research and are less impulsive, whereas street robbers are more likely to use force and act based on opportunity (Wright & Decker, 1997).



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Jon Heidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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