Americans believe violent crime is on the rise. What do the statistics tell us?

avatar Anthony Carli
Is there more crime in the US than there was a year ago? It can be difficult to address the question without allowing outside sources to influence your answer.

Recently, The Brennan Center for Justice found that the overall crime rate, violent crime rate, and murder rate all dropped in 2017. According to their analysis, the nation's 5 largest cities reduced their murder rate by an average of 10.8%, while the top 30 cities averaged a 5.6% reduction. The FBI's preliminary analysis of crime in 2017 tells a similar story, noting that from January-June violent crime decreased by about 1%, and property crime dropped by about 3%.

These statistics fit into a larger trend: Violent crime in the United States has been steadily dropping since the early 1990s. Of note, the numbers began creeping up between 2014 and 2016, but that three year climb appears to have been stymied in 2017. Nonetheless, it is evident that the United States has made progress in cutting the once-soaring crime rate of the 90s.

But despite evidence that the country is becoming safer, many Americans believe that their community is at greater risk of crime and violence.

Gallup has been monitoring the public's perception on the nation's crime rate since 1989. In 2017, 68% of respondents to a national survey indicated a belief that crime had risen. 40% of respondents believed that their own community was more dangerous than the previous year. Furthermore, a 2016 Pew research study found that 57% of respondents believed that crime had gotten worse in the United States.

What is observed above is known as the “fear of crime” paradox; despite the relatively low risk of victimization, Americans feel the opposite. But what fuels this contradiction of logic?

Pew suggests that the limited availability of crime data may be an influencing factor. Government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) are the most cited sources for crime statistics. However, the analysis and publication of their findings come far after the calendar year being studied had concluded. For instance, the 2015 FBI and BJS crime reports were released in November of 2016. By the time FBI and BJS issued their reports, actual and perceived crime may have changed for many American communities, impacting the opinion of the public at large and perhaps contributing to the disparity between statistical and perceived risk of victimization.

The influence of media consumption cannot be understated as well. In newsrooms across the country, crime is an important beat to cover. The adage “If it bleeds, it leads” still rings true in local news coverage. But beyond tragic headlines, long-form programs that take a deep dive in a particularly gruesome crime, alongside pervasive fictional crime dramas, appear to make a significant impact on a viewer's perception of crime in the United States.

A 2003 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture by Kenneth Dowler from California State University Bakersfield found that, “Respondents who report that they are regular viewers of crime shows are more likely to be fearful of crime. This is true even when we control for age, gender, race, income, education, marital status, perceived police effectiveness and perceived neighborhood problems.”

Interestingly, though, Dowler's analysis downplays the impact of local news coverage, instead explaining that television shows related to crime are mostly responsible for shifting perception of crime. Dowler notes, “...hours of television and newspaper as the primary source of crime news are not significantly related to fear of crime.” Though it seems counterintuitive, it appears that the fiction pieces produced by Hollywood may shape our perception of safety more severely than the media's coverage of true crime.

Further, Pew suggests that coverage of elections may stoke the fear of crime paradox. In 2016, crime was a major rhetorical theme of candidates' campaigns, which may have played an important role in increasing fear of victimization. Hillary Clinton's infamous “super predator” remarks were resurfaced, and then-candidate Donald Trump frequently tied immigration to crime.

But perhaps most telling, Pew notes that, “...the best context for understanding the conflict between voters’ perceptions of crime and the data is that voters are usually more likely to say crime is up than down, regardless of what official statistics show.” Pew adds, “Since 1989, Gallup has asked respondents whether they think there is more or less crime in the U.S., compared with the year before. In 21 of the 22 years Gallup asked this question, a larger share of respondents said there was more crime.”

So, it seems that Americans have always feared crime, and who can blame us? Crime is often unexpected and devastating, both emotionally and physically. Break-ins, for instance, rob people of more than just material goods, they shake the belief that their homes are safe spaces for their family. Street harassment steals the endorphin rush of a person who is simply trying to unwind from a hectic day; according to research by Runner's World, 43% of female runners reported that sexual harassment occurs nearly every time they lace up and hit the streets. Fear is often used as a weapon to exploit others and force an imbalance of power. What, then, can Americans do to bring back the confidence needed to relinquish fear?

Here are three easy-to-implement suggestions:
  • Understand your risk, and maintain good security habits: Do some research on your community. A simple Internet search can bring a ton of insight on your risk of encountering crime. In addition, lock your front door, maintain awareness in public and set up an alarm system. These commonsense practices are too often ignored. They are simple to implement and do not require upkeep, but they are essential to ensuring you feel safe at home and on the town.
  • Explore self-defense classes in your area: Learning what you can do with your own body is incredibly empowering. Though it is unlikely that you'll encounter a situation necessitating hand-to-hand skills, self-defense and martial arts classes help you find the power hidden within you. If you're competitive and want a sporting aspect, check out your local boxing, mixed-martial arts or Brazilian jiu-jitsu gyms.
  • Invest in a self-defense tool that fits your lifestyle: Ideally, you'll purchase something that puts a healthy distance between you and a threat. Explore items like the TASER Pulse and TASER Bolt. Carrying a self-defense tool can bring the confidence to address and deescalate a threatening situation.
There's no panacea to crime. It takes policymakers, law enforcement agencies, social services and communities working in concert with one another. But that doesn't mean that efforts aren't making a difference today, and it certainly doesn't mean your fear is misplaced. Hopefully, though, the statistical trends, alongside the suggestions above, will help ensure you can approach life with confidence and not let fear hold you back from accomplishing your goals.



Bolt, Pulse, TASER Bolt, TASER Pulse, and TASER are trademarks of Axon Enterprise, Inc., registered in the US and other countries. For more information, visit www.axon.com/legal. All rights reserved © 2018 Axon Enterprise, Inc.

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