Criminal Delusions


"Crime has become the most hotly contested social policy issue of the 1990s," wrote Martin Morse Wooster in the October 1994 reason, "but the debate is decidedly overheated. Statistics issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department suggest that if you live in an area that isn't infested by drug dealers (and, of course, if you don't happen to be a drug dealer), your odds of being a victim of violent crime are about the same as they were 10 years ago."

In other words, Wooster was saying the perception that crime fighting needed to be a top governmental priority because violent crime was on the rise was totally unfounded. Sound familiar?

Something similar is happening today. Americans are more concerned about crime and violence than at any point in the last 15 years, Gallup reported in April. Some 53 percent told the polling giant that they're worried "a great deal." That's up 14 points in just two years; among those with a high school diploma or less, 7 in 10 said they're greatly concerned.

But from 2005 to 2014, America's violent crime rates fell by more than 16 percent, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. The incidence of murder, robbery, and aggravated assault all dropped by double-digit figures as well. Despite a large increase in the nation's population, even the raw number of violent crimes committed in 2014 (1.2 million) was down compared to 1995 (1.8 million). The violent crime rate, meanwhile, was cut nearly in half over that period.

"We are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence," the Harvard -psychologist Steven Pinker said in a popular 2007 TED talk. So why do people continue to be convinced that crime is a bigger problem than ever?

In 1994, Wooster thought part of the explanation was that the media did a poor job portraying law enforcement to the public. "Far too many citizens, engorged by 'reality' shows on the networks, believe that police spend their days kicking down doors and blasting away at Uzi-toting drug lords," he wrote.

Recent images of armored vehicles rolling through small towns in middle America probably haven't helped the trend.