Politicians love to point to high crime rates to justify tough law-and-order policies. But when crime rates fall sharply a lag in public perception remains.
Why do so many people believe that violent crime is increasing when crime statistics clearly show otherwise?
Consider the statistics. Data collected by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department reveals that violent crime and property crime rates both fell sharply between 1993 and 2018. The FBI found a 50% decline in violent crime over this period. A separate annual survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found a 71% decline.
Property crime, which is more common, also fell sharply according to both sources.
But public perception of rising crime rates remains strong, according to the Gallup Organization, which conducts annual opinion surveys with Americans about numerous topics.
For 1993-2018 Gallup in 18 of 22 surveys found that 60% of respondents on average believed that crime had increased over the previous year.
The public is not oblivious to the declining crime rate, but still vastly underestimates it.
For example, in 1993 more than 8 in 10 survey respondents believed that crime had increased over the previous year. That’s more than 40% higher than the figure for 2018.
A mitigating factor may be that crime rates while falling sharply over the entire 1993-2018 period, experienced a rise in two two-year periods. Those rises may have contributed to the perception that the crime rate isn’t falling.
Another complicating factor is that survey respondents typically perceive the national crime rate to be higher than the crime rate in their area. At most, half of the respondents for the 1993 to 2018 period felt that the local crime rate was increasing.
The evident disjuncture between declining crime rates and public perceptions of crime perceptions suggests that many Americans are invested in the rising crime narrative for other reasons.
Could it be the influence of TV crime dramas? The evidence appears to be mixed. Many studies suggest that viewers of TV crime dramas have a greater fear of crime but do not necessarily exaggerate the level of actual crime in their areas or even nationally.
Some academic studies say that most citizens rely on FBI reporting to form their impressions of crime rates. If so, it’s unclear why so many Americans still believe that crime rates are increasing annually when FBI reporting shows a fairly continuous decline.
Local news may be another factor. Studies also show that news programs tend to highlight murderers and robberies as part of their regular programming, which could contribute to perceptions of how prevalent violent crime still is.
But the biggest distinguishing factor may be demographic. One authoritative study has shown that those with less education and lower incomes are far more likely to think that crime is increasing than those with higher incomes and more education.
Still, it’s not clear why. Do those who are more affluent have better information about crime – or are they simply more insulated from crime because their neighborhoods may be less crime-ridden?
Interestingly, after years of divergence White and non-Whites now have more or less the same perceptions about the crime rate, so race and ethnic background alone is no longer an overriding factor.
Another stark factor is political affiliation. Since 2003, Republicans have consistently believed that crime is on the rise, while Democrats tend to believe the exact opposite.
Mass shootings are also playing a role in artificially inflating fears of violent crime – as well as exaggerated depictions of its incidence.
Mass shootings constitute less than 1% of all violent crimes. But they attract enormous media attention and prompt irrational fears of gun violence that fuels calls for stricter gun control measures.