Crime down, but many still edgy

Despite years of declining crime rates, Americans still feel threatened - and they don't see more police and prisons as the answer.

Violent crime has fallen rapidly in the United States during the past six years, yet many Americans - especially women and minorities - still feel threatened.

Despite government reports of progress, two-thirds of women and blacks say they believe violent crime is still on the rise.

Their favorite solutions? Not more prisons and police, but better parenting and education.

US attitudes about violent crime were probed in a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll that interviewed 936 Americans nationwide. The poll was conducted June 7 to 10.

Just as the survey concluded, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that from 1994 to 2000, violent crime declined by more than 40 percent, the largest drop on record.

This improvement was reflected among Americans in the Monitor/TIPP poll, with nearly half reporting that they felt "very safe" in their neighborhoods, even when alone at night.

Yet the feeling of security wasn't universal, particularly among low-income persons, women, and some minorities.

Susan Swigart, a single woman in Lubbock, Texas, spoke for many, saying she has seen crime in her community "go sky high." She explains, "I keep my windows and my door locked at all times. I have two dogs. I'm afraid to even walk down the street at night."

Like Ms. Swigart, an overwhelming 95 percent of those contacted in the Monitor/TIPP poll said that violent crime continues to be a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem in the US. Overall, 56 percent said violent crime was still increasing, while 32 percent agreed with the government that it was declining.

For Americans saturated with heavy coverage of violence in their local media, the problem of crime often comes down to what's happening in their communities.

When asked, "How safe would you feel walking in your neighborhood after dark?" most responded that they would feel "very safe" (49 percent) or at least "somewhat safe" (36 percent).

But there were dramatic differences between groups. While a majority of men (64 percent) said they would be "very safe" walking in their neighborhoods alone at night, only 35 percent of women felt that way. And while 54 percent of whites said they would feel very safe, only 23 percent of blacks and 39 percent of Hispanics felt that secure.

There were also sharp differences by income. Only 36 percent of those with household incomes below $30,000 said they would be very safe, while 61 percent of those earning more than $75,000 felt very secure.

The perception of a serious threat of violent crime reaches even into unexpected regions and communities, as illustrated by Hans Seyerle, the manager of a food-processing plant in rural Bells, Tenn.

Mr. Seyerle, the father of two teenagers, says violence seems to be growing in his area. "I would [like to] go walking in my neighborhood after dark, but I would not feel comfortable," he says. "If a car stopped and I was walking after dark, I'd be really concerned. And I live in the country."

Seyerle blames the rise of crime in his area on parents, educators, and politicians for being "too passive" about society's problems, and failing to "take a stand to show good values."

While politicians often champion get-tough policies like bigger prisons, tougher sentencing, and more police, people interviewed in the poll took a different tack.

Given a list of 10 choices, they said that the five most effective steps that the US could take to reduce violent crime would be improving parenting and education, lowering drug use, creating more jobs, and reducing racial prejudice.

Less effective, they said, would be tougher sentencing for crimes, reducing violence in movies and the media, and restricting access to guns. Least effective would be hiring more police and building more prisons.

"When it comes to reducing crime, there is a disconnect between conventional wisdom and common wisdom - that is, between what experts think and what Americans at large think," says Raghavan Mayur, the president of TIPP and conductor of the poll for the Monitor. While experts advocate better policing, "Americans believe that reducing crime begins at home, by way of good parenting and ensuring ... a solid education."

Seyerle, who says he moved from Dallas to a quiet corner of Tennessee so his children could get a better and safer education, sees proposals for more police as only a "stopgap measure."

While more police would help, the long-term solution is "to improve the values of the American society, improve education, [and] provide employment for everyone who's able to work," he says. "These are very difficult problems, but they've been eroding our society for 30 or 40 years."

Staff writer Sara Steindorf contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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