Crime Is Down, But Americans Are Convinced It's Rising

Also, some of you are scared of clowns.


We are the 15.9 percent.
The Simpsons

Three social scientists at Chapman University have just released a revealing report on American fears. Among other interesting bits of data, it informs us that the item in its survey that Americans fear most is walking alone at night, that people who watch true-crime TV are more likely to be afraid of the future, and that 15.9 percent of the country is at least somewhat scared of clowns.

Also, Americans are prone to thinking crime rates are getting worse even when they're actually improving. If you're a regular Reason reader, there's a good chance you suspected that already, but now you have some fresh numbers to back up those suspicions:

"What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years," said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the survey. "When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down."

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Specific crimes queried in the survey were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

Here's a handy chart:

Chapman Survey on American Fears

While the numbers for riots and serial killings are not majorities, both go over 50 percent if you add the people who say the threats occur about the same amount now as 20 years ago. So you never have a majority saying a crime has declined.

Yes, yes, you say, but what was that thing you said about clowns? Glad you asked:

Chapman Survey on American Fears

N.B.: They didn't survey anyone under the age of 18, so these numbers don't capture those of us who aren't afraid of Bozo now but used to run screaming from the room whenever Sesame Street showed this little John-Wayne-Gacy-makes-time-run-backwards film:

Anyway. I've only scratched the surface of the study. To explore it for yourself, go here.

NEXT: The Department of Homeland Security Goes on a Panty Raid

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  1. Never let actual data interfere with good ol' fashioned fear-mongering. People believe crime is up because "authority figures" like cops and politicians know the easiest way to justify their existence is through fear.

    1. This is true, but man, the media assists so much as well, though most likely not deliberately. It's just that a lot of people like crime dramas and police procedurals, so TV and movies and news give it to them in spades.

      If every show you watch is endlessly about one crime after another, you're probably going to think that it's just one huge crime-fest out there.

      1. the media assists so much as well, though most likely not deliberately.

        Fear sells. It sells (or rather buys) elections. It sells people on the notion that they need to spend more to be safe. AND it sells airtime.

        The media has as much to gain as the politicians, and they hype fear as much or more.

    2. Even worse is the fact that Cops believe that the reduction in crime is because of their Orwellian tactics (See Omnipresence: NYPD).

      I don't have a problem agreeing that increased police presence can lower overall crime to a certain degree, but there are many factors behind the drop in crime and it's difficult to attribute the reduction to a single factor.

      That doesn't stop the Cops from claiming it's THEIR tactics that have caused the reduction, thus allowing them to take further steps toward the full on police state.

      1. I was originally going to make the point that increasing incarceration rates likely contributed to decreasing crime rates (seems obvious).

        But then I looked at the statistics, and apparently the US incarceration rate has quintupled in the last 45 years but the crime rates are about the same (mind you, they spiked in between in the mid-1980s). Even more damning is that in 1960, both the crime rate and incarceration rate were much lower than today.

        So I think there are other factors at play, but I don't think I've seen anyone conclusively identify what they might be.

    3. I think that the media and authority figures play on that bias, but the natural bias about how things are going to hell and were better in the good old days seems to have existed throughout human history.

    4. I'm kind of torn on this issue. I mean, sure the larger numbers seem to support this, but where are they getting their numbers from? The police, who report the crimes to these databases. If anyone has an incentive to lie and claim that they are making things safer it's them. See any episode of Season 5 of the Wire for example.

      I'm not saying crime isn't going down, all I'm saying is the numbers aren't coming from a trustworthy source. I'd like to see some kind of independent numbers.

      1. The all crime stats are broadly consistent with the murder and homicide stats. It's hard to hide dead bodies.

        1. And surveys done with entirely different methodologies (like surveys of victims) give the same answer.

  2. A better video would be Puddles doing his cover of "Royals."

  3. How can crime be down when every day the government makes more things criminal?

    Also, are we talking about private crime or public crime? By public crime I mean criminal acts from public servants - I assume public crime doesn't count in the juked stats.

    1. It's probably an indication that crime has gone down even more dramatically than it seems, because the drop rate is buffered by all the new crimes the government keeps putting on the books. There really is nothing good that the government can't fuck up.

    2. Thought Crime is going through the roof.

  4. To be fair, clowns are weird. I'm not afraid of them but I never liked them.

    1. I would be okay if Jesse never uses another clown picture ever again.

  5. More evidence that we should make decisions democratically, rather than leaving it up to the market.

    1. Poe's Law?

  6. The only thing to fear is fear itself loss of liberty.

  7. So never trust the government except for crime figures. It's almost like libertarians are completely unaware of the wide spread statistical trickery being used by crime statistics compilers. But I get these stats help the narrative so put that skepticism of government away. It can on the shelf will the skepticism of big government economics and opposition to Obamacare. But how about those drugs and sex. well a lot more drugs than sex for the cosmos, but you take what you can get.

    1. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which does not depend on police reports, shows a decline in violent crime over the same period.

    2. The government is no doubt cooking the books (although we are saints compared to Europe, where for example crimes without convictions are not counted). However, the poll itself is bullshit. Questioning people on their perception of the crime rate is meaningless. How the fuck would the average person have any perspective on such an abstraction? The only meaningful poll would be "have you yourself been a victim of a crime (of these enumerated types) in the last 12 months?"

      1. Actually, even then the poll would not be accurate in estimating the crime rate, since it would not account for multiplicity (you could have been the victim of multiple crimes over the last 12 months). Nevertheless, the broader point remains: people's perceptions of abstractions are not disproof of trends per se.

      2. The government is no doubt cooking the books

        There are clear cases where jurisdictions have done this, but I don't see any reason to assume it's more common now than in the past.

        However, the poll itself is bullshit. Questioning people on their perception of the crime rate is meaningless. How the fuck would the average person have any perspective on such an abstraction? The only meaningful poll would be "have you yourself been a victim of a crime (of these enumerated types) in the last 12 months?"

        Do you mean the Chapman poll? It doesn't pretend to be a measure of anything other than public perceptions. That's the point of it.

        Or do you mean the National Crime Victimization Survey? In that case, it's the poll you're asking for: People are asked whether they've been victims of various specific crimes. The point is to try to get a handle on the stuff that doesn't show up in the official statistics because it isn't reported to the police.

  8. It doesn't help the notion of crime being down here in Chicago. does the study show geographically whether crime is up or down?
    The media has us all scared to death (probably the only thing true in Michael Moore's Bowling for flick). In general crime is down, maybe the same in poor inner cities. But the media give us a head/body count every Sunday night and Monday so perception is reality to most.

    1. There are exceptions. Chicago is having a bad run, though that still puts it back to mid '90s.

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