Perception of Crime Rate Often Not A Mirror of Reality, Survey Finds

By EVA FEDDERLY

(CN)- Prior to casting their vote for Donald Trump, a majority of backers of the president-elect believed crime has increased since President Barack Obama took office, despite both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting crime has significantly decreased.

Those are the findings of the non-partisan Pew Research Center, which conducted a survey of likely voters in the weeks leading up to the election.

During that survey, 3,788 voters were asked if they thought violent and property crime rates in the country had gotten better, worse, or stayed the same since 2008.

Pew’s researchers found that 78 percent of those who described themselves as Trump supporters believed the violent and property crime rates had increased since Obama’s election, while only 37 percent of self-identified supporters of Democrat Hillary Clinton held the same belief.

“To the extent that there’s a large difference between people with different political leanings, clearly an important part of the Trump campaign is that crime is going through the roof. It certainly was not going through the roof,” Dr. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnie Mellon, told Courthouse News.

Dr. James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University went a step further, noting that the national crime rate was on the decline before Obama took office, and that it declined further while he was in office.

Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics would comment on the Pew Research Center’s findings.

But Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University and a past president of the American Psychological Association, did not find them surprising.

“Trump emphasized crime … he links crime to a lot of factors, such as immigration and religion. Crime is infused into a lot of things he’s supporting. He called his opponent a criminal,” Farley said.

According to the Justice Department’s 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey, “from 1993 to 2015, the rate of violent crime declined from 79.8 to 18.6 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.”

Meanwhile, the FBI’s 2015 Crime in the United States report, showed the violent crime rate decreasing steadily from 2008 to 2014, with the exception of a slight, .07 percent increase in 2012.

“I think people always think crime is increasing in part because it’s a reflection of what they read in the press,” Blumstein said.

“What happened in the past fades from memory, and what they’re aware of is crime happening right now. Because of recent happenings, they have a reasonable fear that it’s increasing. But crime reached a peak in 1992 and has been declining ever since,” he said.

Pew says that the discrepancy between Americans’ perceptions and reality can be non-partisan.

“The disconnect is nothing new … Americans’ perceptions of crime are often at odds with the data,” the organization stated in an article entitled, “Voters’ perceptions of crime continue to conflict with reality.

“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,” the article said.

The lone exception was 2001 when 43 percent of people polled by Gallup said the crime rate had gone done, and 41 percent said it had gone up.

“[It’s] not unusual for public perceptions of crime to be at variance with the actual crime statistics,” said Dr. James Lynch, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland.

“Generally people will almost always think it’s going up. There’s some evidence that if it bleeds it leads,” Lynch said. “If you did a content analysis of most newspapers, the amount of crime reporting has been pretty steady. A lot of time people get their impressions from the press. Where you get your information from is influential. No offense to the press, but they aren’t giving time to the cheery indicators.”

 

Lynch continued, “Crime is dropping like a rock in places of urban renaissance, like New York City and Los Angeles. But people have a 1970s vision of crime. There’s a lot of mythology that gets frozen in time. There are these images of crimes we have that don’t keep up with the statistics of crime. You can invoke sympathy or passion by bringing these images things up.”

Farley explained a psychological component of fear: “For example, if you look at the numbers, terrorism is a minuscule threat in America. Yet we hear a lot about it. People may think of terrorist attacks before we go out to a big event. Some terrorist attacks were at public events, like the Orlando nightclub shooting. But our psychology distorts the statistics.”

Farley continued, “Crime can have great salience personally because it’s a threat to us and to our survival. We may exaggerate the numbers because we’re thinking of our own safety. It’s like a cautionary note. This idea that crime is going down significantly, it may be something we won’t accept. In the abstract maybe, but in reality, we won’t because crime is a threat.”

The Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy and law institute, stated in their report Crime in 2016: A Preliminary Analysis, “All told, 2015’s murder rate was still near historic lows.”

Ames Grawert, an attorney with the Brennan Center said, “At Brennan Center for Justice we look at crime rates in America’s thirty largest cities. The reality is that the country is at an all-time low in terms of crime rate. It’s surprising how much we heard on the campaign trail about crime rate increases. Trump said murder is at a 45-year high, which is categorically false. It peaked in 1991. Now we’re back to where we started in 1965.”

“If you look at local media, they like to portray the shocking stories. They talk about crime in your neighborhood. They don’t say the crime rate in the country is decreasing — that doesn’t draw eyeballs or clicks,” Grawert said.