Violent Crime Declines, Despite Public Perception

TRUE or false?

One: Americans live in a violent society, and one that is becoming ever more so.

Two: You have never experienced violent crime, and few, if any, of your family members, friends, or acquaintances have been the victims of homicide, assault, robbery, or rape.

The typical resident of the United States would answer - somewhat paradoxically - true and true.

``People's perceptions are out of sync with the data. They see our society as much more violent than it really is,'' says Charles Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo. ``Most people lead violence-free lives.''

According to reports published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice's Bureau of Judicial Statistics (BJS), the probability that the average person in the US will have a violent encounter with a criminal is small. Only 5 percent of American households experienced violent crime in 1992, BJS reported last month. And FBI statistics show that in '92 just 758 violent crimes were reported to police per 100,000 inhabitants of the US.

Moreover, in both the FBI and Justice Department reports, violent crime relative to the US population dropped slightly between 1991 and 1992.

Scholars agree on a major cause for the disparity between people's fear of violent crime and the actual incidence of violence. ``Our sense of safety is influenced more by the media than by statistics,'' says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. ``Even if we reduced the crime rate enormously, there would still be plenty of sensational crimes for the 11 o'clock news.''

``The news media focus on spectacular crimes,'' adds criminal-justice Prof. James Fife at Temple University in Philadelphia. ``But these are very unusual.''

Referring to the highly publicized murders of two foreign tourists in Florida last month, Dr. Ewing says, ``The likelihood of your being victimized in a crime like that is about the same as being hit by lightning.''

HESE experts are quick to acknowledge that the US has serious crime problems. For one thing, many Americans each year are victims of nonviolent crimes like burglary and car theft. And as for violent crime, ``some cities and neighborhoods are war zones,'' Ewing notes.

Also, owing in large part to narcotics and the lethality of the guns now readily available to street criminals, violence ``in the bad areas has become much worse in recent years,'' Dr. Fife says.

Still, the prevalence of crime - and particularly violent crime - is often exaggerated. ``We do live in a violent society - more than at any time in America's past,'' Ewing says. ``But violent crime is statistically insignificant, and the rate has been relatively stable in recent years.''

This observation is generally born out by the federal government's two primary reports on crime trends published each year. While inevitable questions about methodology arise, Dr. Fox says that together the reports provide ``a pretty good barometer'' on crime in the US.

Does it make any difference that many people believe violent crime to be more pervasive than it actually is? According to experts, the fear of crime - as much as crime itself - can have harmful effects.

Fear of violence can cause people to buy guns, sometimes with tragic consequences. A study released last week found that having a handgun in a home almost triples the likelihood that someone - usually not an intruder - will be killed there.

Also, people's failure to understand that, as Fife says, ``violent crime is heavily concentrated in small parts of metropolitan areas, and among poor people and minorities'' can affect the public debate over policies to combat crime.

Uninformed fear of violence, some scholars say, undermines support for long-range solutions to crime - targeted at ameliorating economic and social causes of violence - in favor of more immediate remedies focused on punishment and deterrence.

``If you asked people in the urban areas where most violence occurs for their prescriptions on stopping crime, you would probably get very different answers than if you asked most middle-class Americans,'' Ewing says. ``Most people aren't really addressing the problem of violent crime. It's easier just to say, `Let's arm ourselves.' ''

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