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America’s Faulty Perception of Crime Rates

America’s crime rates are at their lowest point in decades. So why do so many Americans think crime is going up?

March 16, 2015

Cross-posted on The Huff­ing­ton Post.

The head­line in this year’s Jan. 16th St. Louis Post-Dispatch was fright­en­ing by any stand­ard: “Bloody St. Louis sees 7 killings; 3 arrests.” The piece went on to detail six shoot­ings over a 13-hour stretch that killed seven people, includ­ing a single mother of two and a hotel night manager.

But just as it’s never poin­ted out that thou­sands of aircraft landed safely on the day of a plane crash, a little perspect­ive can place this tragedy in some context. Viol­ent crime in St. Louis peaked in 1993, and in 2013, the last year for which data is avail­able, the viol­ent crime rate was lower than it was in 1985.

Today, the national crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991. Viol­ent crime has fallen by 51 percent since 1991, and prop­erty crime by 43 percent. In 2013 the viol­ent crime rate was the lowest since 1970. And this holds true for unre­por­ted crimes as well. Accord­ing to the National Crime Victim­iz­a­tion Survey, since 1993 the rate of viol­ent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victim­iz­a­tions per 1,000 people. Amer­ic­ans who lived through the 1960s and 1970s remem­ber the fear asso­ci­ated with a real surge in viol­ent crime. In fact, the viol­ent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970, and by 64 percent between 1970 and 1980. The Bren­nan Center recently issued a report examin­ing 14 theor­ies for why crime declined in the U.S. so dramat­ic­ally since the early 1990s. Accord­ing to our empir­ical analysis, the greatest contrib­ut­ing factors in the crime drop were aging popu­la­tion, changes in income, and decreased alco­hol consump­tion.

This chart shows the dramatic increase, and equally dramatic drop, in viol­ent crime in the U.S. over the past 50 years.

But despite not know­ing exactly why crime declined so dramat­ic­ally, it appears that many Amer­ic­ans are not even aware that it did.

One would think that with the dramatic drop in crime, Amer­ica’s communit­ies would be revel­ing in the streets as though it were Mardi Gras, or at least talk­ing about how much safer they feel walk­ing around their neigh­bor­hoods as adults than they felt walk­ing the streets as teen­agers. But decades of Gallup polls indic­ate other­wise.

Accord­ing to a Gallup poll from Novem­ber 2014, despite dramatic declines in the nation’s viol­ent crime rate, a major­ity of Amer­ic­ans say "there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago," which reflects a long-term Gallup trend. Currently, 63 percent of Amer­ic­ans believe crime is up over last year. The real­ity, again, is differ­ent. Crime stat­ist­ics released by the FBI also in Novem­ber 2014 revealed that the estim­ated number of viol­ent crimes in 2013 decreased by 4.4 percent when compared with 2012 figures, and the estim­ated number of prop­erty crimes decreased by 4.1 percent.

Govern­ment stat­ist­ics show that, except for some small blips, seri­ous crime has decreased almost every year from 1994 through 2013. For over a decade Gallup has found that the major­ity of Amer­ic­ans polled believe crime is up, contrary to the fact that crime rates have plummeted in almost every small and large city since the 1990s. This is not to say that all cities and areas are exper­i­en­cing decreases in viol­ent crime year after year, but the over­all rate of viol­ent crime is signi­fic­antly lower than historic levels.

We can gauge public percep­tion of crime in other ways as well. In the figure below we can see the trends in the homicide rate, as well as the number of mentions of “murder” or “homicide” in New York City’s and St. Louis’ major news­pa­per head­lines.

In New York City, for example, homicides are at an all-time low. The homicide rate per 100,000 people was 4 in 2013, compared with 31 in 1990. Head­line mentions of murder in The New York Times per year have bounced around a lot but don’t show the same steady, down­ward trend as homicides them­selves. There were 129 mentions of “homicide” or “murder” in the Times' head­lines in 1990, when the murder rate was at a histor­ical high. There were 135 in 2013.

In St. Louis homicides are down from their early-1990s peak, but the trend has been flat. The city hasn’t seen New York’s dramatic decline, but crime is still down signi­fic­antly since the 1990s. The homicide rate in 2013 in St. Louis was 38, compared with 45 in 1990. Head­line mentions of murder in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have declined markedly, however. Unlike in New York, murder head­lines have declined even more quickly than the homicide rate. In the Post-Dispatch head­lines, mentions of “murder” or “homicide” have dipped from 232 in 1990 to just 67 in 2013. Yet despite the drop in head­lines mention­ing murder, the grue­some­ness has not gone away. Case in point: A head­line in the St. Louis Dispatch on Dec. 21, 2013, read, “Miss­ing Alton woman was slain and dismembered; 2 men charged with murder,” and a Nov. 14, 2013, head­line in the same news­pa­per read, "St. Louis man convicted of stabbing grand­mother to death."

It seems that what the data shows is that despite decreas­ing murder rates and decreas­ing atten­tion (at least in some news­pa­pers), the public still believes crime is rampant. This indic­ates that the public still hasn’t recovered from the years of the crime surge, or, perhaps more accur­ately, that the sensa­tion­al­ist cover­age of isol­ated crimes has contrib­uted to the public misper­cep­tion that crime is increas­ing.

As with the Gallup polls data, the narrat­ive of viol­ent crime—at least in the popu­lar press—­does­n’t have much to do with the crime real­ity. Crime across the nation is at an all-time low. We need to recog­nize that and embrace effect­ive policies to keep it even lower. Just as with the case of airplane crashes, the public may see the extraordin­ary event as repres­ent­at­ive of the norm when it is not.