American attitudes are disconnected from reality on crime trends

American attitudes are disconnected from reality on crime trends
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Many Americans applauded President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE when he declared in his inaugural address that violent crime was experiencing its largest increase in nearly half a century and that the carnage must stop, “right here and now.”  Indeed, homicide rates did increase by 11.4 percent from 2014 to 2015.

But this one-year increase was swamped by declining crime rates in the United States for at least a quarter-century. These declines are so great that criminologists routinely refer to the period after the 1990s as “the great crime decline.” Annual homicide rates (the most reliably measured type of crime) were about the same in 2016 as they were in 1960. Property crimes are lower than at any point since the 1960s.

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Data just released by the FBI show that these trends are continuing. For the first half of 2017, violent crime rates decreased another percentage point (0.08 percent) over the first six months of 2016. Property crimes declined by nearly 3 percentage points. What’s more, violent crime rates fell the most in the nation’s largest cities — by 3.3 points in cities with more than a million residents. Property crime rates fell most in smaller cities with populations below 50,000.  


Despite the evidence, in 21 Gallup surveys conducted since 1989, a majority of Americans said that there was more crime in the United States compared to the year before.

What explains this seeming disconnect between perception and reality when it comes to crime? The media no doubt play an important role. The familiar bromide, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is trite but true. Face it, a grisly murder or rape draws far more attention than a story about safe neighborhoods and happy school children. And the natural tendency for the news to focus on the extraordinary no doubt has been accelerated by technology. Sensational crimes from anywhere in the world now show up on the local news. Also, as we move from getting our news from print to electronic media, we are increasingly bombarded with visual representations of crime that may have a more emotional impact than printed newspaper articles.

Clearly, public perceptions of the risk of crime are driven less by statistics than by compelling stories and graphic images.

I should mention three important caveats:

  • First, the disconnect between public perceptions of crime and actual crime rates is not universal.  For example, data from Gallup surveys shows that the proportion of Americans saying that there is more crime this year than last actually declined significantly between 1993 and 2002—at the same time that crime rates also dramatically declined.  
  • Second, there are large geographic variations in crime rates. While crime trends for the country as a whole have been steeply down since the 1990s and while this decline has included large as well as small cities, there is a good deal of variation. For example, murder rates in Baltimore have been stuck at relatively high levels since the early 1990s.
  • And finally, many crimes are not reported to the police. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about half of all violent crime (47 percent) and a third of property crime (35 percent) was reported to police in 2015.

But even with these caveats there are important costs associated with our widespread misperceptions about crime. Fear of crime has implications for a wide variety of everyday behavior. Compared to others, those with greater fear of crime experience more stress and are more likely to own guns and install security systems. Greater fear also constrains behavior, encouraging citizens to avoid going out at night or visiting certain neighborhoods.

Fear of crime is likely related to even such mundane decisions as whether children should walk or bicycle in their neighborhoods. Not long ago, children routinely moved around their neighborhoods by foot or by bicycle, and that was often how they traveled to and from school. That is no longer the case. At the height of the American crime boom in 1969, almost half (48 percent) of children ages 5-14 usually walked or cycled to school (The National Center for Safe Routes to School, 2011). Ironically, in the current period of relatively low crime rates, this figure has dropped by nearly three-quarters to 13 percent.  

Our perceptions of crime have direct consequences for our political system. The United States began as a disparate set of colonies with a highly decentralized criminal justice system. But as crime rates began to rise in the early 1960s we saw much greater engagement in crime policy at the federal level. This issue of “law and order” first surfaced in national politics during the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater and has been a staple of presidential politics in every election since then.

When Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination for president, he vowed that his administration would “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities” at the very same time that both violent and property crime rates were at their lowest levels in decades.

Hard facts about crime tirelessly distributed seem to be our only defense against the apparently natural predisposition to regard crime as more serious than it is, accelerated by the electronic media and harnessed by politicians for their own purposes.

Gary LaFree is incoming chair of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department and director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland. He is a past president of the American Society of Criminology.