On Crime, Perception Is Finally Catching Up With Reality

As crime rates fell during the past decade, Americans stubbornly refused to acknowledge the trend. Surveys consistently showed them persisting in the view that crime was on the rise, even as hard data showed the opposite. That’s finally changing. For the first time in the dozen years Gallup has been polling on this subject, a plurality of its respondents(43 percent) believe there’s less crime in the U.S. this year than there was a year earlier. (The poll was fielded earlier this month.) Still, almost as many (41 percent) think there’s more crime. Asked whether there’s an area within a mile of home where they’d be afraid to walk at night, 30 percent said “yes”—down from 34 percent last year and from 44 percent in 1992. As for specific crimes, 14 percent said they worry “frequently” about having their cars stolen or broken into. Four percent feel this degree of fear about being murdered or sexually assaulted, 6 percent about being mugged or attacked while in their cars, 12 percent about having their homes burglarized while they’re not there and 13 percent about having a child physically harmed while at school. Each of those numbers is down from the figures recorded in last year’s survey. Indeed, reviewing its trove of data, Gallup declares that “Americans are feeling safer from crime than they have at any point in over 30 years”—except, that is, for fear of terrorism. Twenty-one percent said they frequently fear being a victim of terrorism. (A sign of how times have changed: Respondents weren’t even queried on that topic in last year’s poll.) Might it be that the rise of terrorism has helped Americans to grasp the decline in conventional crime? People can stand just so much fear in their lives. When one threat suddenly looms larger, maybe we scale down our excessive worry about other perils. In the safety of pre-Sept. 11 life, people had the psychic energy to obsess about mad cows and killer sharks. No longer. As risk assessment becomes a national pastime, we can expect further volatility in people’s views of what should and shouldn’t scare them.