Mark Dolliver: Climate of Fear?

It’s hard now to make yourself recall how large the fear of crime loomed in Americans’ lives 15 or 20 years ago. Especially (but not only) in big cities, people lived defensively. Years of falling crime rates then reduced the topic’s visibility. Unless you lived in a rough neighborhood, crime became something that happens on TV shows rather than something that happens to you. In polls about the country’s biggest problems, crime fell out of the top tier.

Now, though, with FBI data indicating an end (or at least an interruption) to the decline in crime, will we see a resurgence in public fear? Survey data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveal early hints of this, though it’s not at all a robust trend.

The chart here shows most people feel safe walking in their neighborhoods after dark. The “very safe” figure is less rosy than in a 2006 poll, though, when 50 percent felt that way. (Another 38 percent felt “somewhat safe.”) In a 2003 poll, the “very safe” tally was 52 percent (with 34 percent feeling “somewhat safe”).

Asked whether anyone in their family has been “physically assaulted or mugged” in the past 12 months, 3 percent said yes—the same as in 2006 and up a single percentage point from 2003. Few knew of a non-family member in their neighborhood who was mugged (6 percent now, 7 percent in 2006, 6 percent in 2003). The number saying a family member has had money or property stolen in the last year is lower than in the recent past (10 percent now, 15 percent in 2006, 14 percent in 2003). Fourteen percent know someone else in the neighborhood to whom this happened (vs. 15 percent last year and 12 percent in 2003).