According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of perception is “a result of perceiving,” “a mental image,” “awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation,” “quick, acute, and intuitive cognition,” or “a capacity for comprehension.” Perceptions are the way that we understand something and are often based on our knowledge of real events or our own life experiences. When it comes to our understanding of crime, our perceptions of crime can be based on experiencing crime as a victim ourselves, what we know about the criminal activity in our community from local news or conversations with neighbors, listening to political conversations about crime, or reading stories about criminal activity on social media.
The problem with this is that our perception of the state of crime in the US is likely based on one or more of these factors rather than on fact. So here is a little factual information: The FBI’s uniform crime report states that between 2008 and 2015, the US’ violent crime rate fell 19 percent and property crime rates fell 23 percent. Despite the decline in crime over the past several years, the perception of crime worsening has been steady among voters.
This raises a lot of questions, but for me, the one that jumps to the top of the list is: Does the increase in hate crime factor into this perception? According to an article, New data shows U.S. hate crimes continued to rise in 2017, “The bureau [FBI] estimates that the overall frequency of hate crimes is far higher than FBI figures, constituting 3.7 percent of all violent crime.” Could the increase in hate crimes coupled with our current media environment be the cause of this widespread perception that the overall violent crime rate in the nation is high? As an Indian-American, specifically, Sikh-American, I end up paying more attention to news that involves hate crimes against Sikhs and have started to support diversity awareness through various campaigns, so I ask myself, does this impact my perception of crime?
A study in the British Journal of Criminology analyzed data spanning 30 years and found a link between the fear of crime and the political generation the respondents belonged to over the past several decades. The study shows, “that citizens have a greater propensity to fear the crimes that were the focus of political debate during their youth and this effect persists into adulthood. The results reveal that crime fears can linger, and that the processes by which people form their political values can cast a long-term influence on their attitude about crime.” The fact that the perception of crime being at its worst is a perception that has been around for years makes me pause. Politicians have been feeding on fears of crime during campaigns for years, and now with social media, they have even more direct access to voters than ever before.
An article published in January 2018 by PEW Research Center titled, “5 facts about crime in the U.S.” further speaks to this. It cites a survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 which found that most crimes are not reported to the police and, specifically, that 58 percent of the violent crime reported in the survey was not reported to police. This could explain the heightened perception of crime within communities and also brings a lack of community trust in the police to light.
Mainstream media also plays a role in a community’s perception of crime. “When we regularly listen to crime reports from news organizations they become familiar and accepted. Couple this with the natural fear of crime and the belief that crime is frequent and rising, leads us to draw conclusions.” A local study done by Portland State University in 2015 provides brief but interesting data on how negatively people feel about crime reporting. Given our current news media environment, a national study on the types of news being reported and effects of news reporting on people would make for an interesting study.
When it comes to the perception of crime, it’s a complicated issue with multiple factors at play. Each person and community come to their perception of crime with their own history and circumstances. One thing, however, is quite universal for all of us as human beings: We react to any particular threat or fear in a fight or flight manner. It’s normal for human beings to react to crime (real or perceived) which can lead to physical harm in a fearful manner.
So how do we align crime facts with perceptions of crime? When speaking of crime, should we always make a distinction between violent and non-violent crime? Do we make a collective plea to those running for office to use facts and not fear to connect with voters? How do we use media and social media in a productive manner to address this disconnect between perception vs. reality when it comes to crime?
I have a lot more questions than answers here. But if you want a good place to start tackling this issue, I encourage you to visit The Council of State Governments Justice Center’s 50-State Report on Public Safety, a recently released first-of-its-kind, web-based resource that combines extensive data analyses, case studies, and the latest research on strategies that work to improve public safety.
Preeti Menon is the Justice Programs Office’s senior associate director and project director of the National Drug Court Resource Center. She is also the former project director of the Right to Counsel National Campaign.