Fear Goes Up As Crime Goes Down

Now here's a curious headline:

by Indira A. R. Lakshmanan (Boston Globe 8/15/94, front page)

Serious crime in Boston is at a 20-year low, but criminologists warn that the improved numbers released last week should not give all residents a greater sense of security.

An analysis of national and local crime statistics shows that juveniles are committing substantially more crimes and that murder by gunfire has soared. At the same time, fear of crime - which undermines the quality of life, the value of real estate, and a city's ability to attract business - is surging.

Gosh, this sounds awful! It's not until you get to paragraph five that you find that in Boston murder is down 4 percent for the first six months of '94 compared to the first six of '93, rape is down 10 percent, and aggravated assault is down 9 percent. Violent crime is down nation-wide, in fact.

I went to one of my favorite books, "The Statistical Abstract of the United States" (1992) to get a longer view. The rate of violent crime has been fairly steady over the last 15 years. The murder rate actually fell between 1980 and 1990, although aggravated assault has risen quite a bit, and rape rose a little. The rate of victimization (that is, the number of people who are victims of crimes as a fraction of the population), has been slowly but steadily declining.

Yet fear of crime seems to be going up steadily. Politically, it's led to bizarre policies such as mandatory sentencing and life sentences for the third felony (which has not been enacted yet, thank goodness). Could this fear be related to the odd attitude displayed in the above newspaper story?

How about this for a theory: crime news is a product. Like all manufacturers, the makers of crime news strive to constantly broaden their market. They try to diversify their product line, increase public awareness of its existence, raise its quality, and increase its quantity.

Crime news has always been around, of course, but so have toothbrushes. In the early days crime news was a local product, the stories of the neighborhood, and people made toothbrushes from local twigs too. As industrial techniques became widespread, there grew to be national and then world-wide manufacturers of both. People specialized in its manufacture, and spent their careers thinking of better ways to make it. Now there are styles of toothbrush for every dental preference, and there is crime news at every level from books on Wall Street scandals to the gleeful ghastliness in the Enquirer.

Now everybody's got a toothbrush, and everybody's aware of crime. The degree of awareness doesn't correlate with the amount of it; it's just a byproduct of manufacturing progress. With the next leap in media penetration about to happen with the info highway, I predict that there will be another leap in crime awareness. Not only will you be able to live in a virtual world, you won't want to venture outside it. It's just not safe out there.

(c) John Redford, Aug-94

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