Behind the ‘paradox of fear’: Crime is down, but many Americans don’t feel safe

So far, 2017 is on track to have the second-lowest violent crime rate of any year since 1990, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

David Goldman/AP
Atlanta Police Officers Michael Costello (left) and Jacob Fletcher walk into a neighborhood looking for clues in a 2014 murder case as part of a “tactical neighborhood canvass” in March 2016. The department’s homicide unit routinely organizes such canvasses looking for clues in recent cases or in older ones that remain unsolved.

As recently as five years ago, says Urban Pie pizza shop owner Lisa Curtis, crime was so bad in her Atlanta neighborhood that newly planted rose bushes would get dug up and carted away by thieves.

So when a succession of gunshots rang out in late August, leaving a local rapper dead near her restaurant door, the scene could well have served as evidence of the growing “American carnage” described by President Trump amid a rise in violent crime in some US cities in 2015 and 2016.

Yet where such criminal mayhem may have once been routine here on Atlanta’s urban east side, today it is an anomaly. The Zone 6 precinct has become the city’s most peaceful corner, according to an Atlanta Police Department analysis, when it comes to theft and violent crime. That's partly due to an influx of wealthier residents, more effective police crime-fighting strategies, improving schools, and a blossoming local economy that benefits a wide swath of Atlantans.

“Nothing changed, nobody is staying in and locking their doors,” says Ms. Curtis. “Everybody knows that this is about a few people – the same ones who keep shooting each other and getting shot. If anything, [the restaurant has] been busier as people have come out to show support.” 

To some observers, the killing of Jibril Abdur-Rahman and the neighborhood’s shocked but measured reaction can be seen as part of a shifting “paradox of fear” in America.

On one hand, people became 62 percent less likely to become the victim of a violent crime between 1993 and 2014. The number of violent-crime victims per 1,000 persons age 12 or older dropped from 29.3 to just 11.1 in that period, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics.

And so far, 2017 is on track to have the second-lowest violent crime rate of any year since 1990, according to figures released this month by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice.

On the other, surveys are finding many Americans convinced that a general crime threat against law-abiding Americans is rising. That sentiment has at times found an outlet in President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who together have painted scenes of worsening urban “war zones.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Atlanta Police Officer Neil McCay patrols the city’s Zone 6 in January, 2015.

Perception vs. reality

It’s a conundrum: While US neighborhoods, as a whole, are safer than at any time in the past 25 years, many Americans remain convinced that crime is a growing problem.

Part of people’s outlook depends on where they are viewing from: Rural Americans are far more likely to believe the narrative of big crime in the big city. One of them is Trump voter Skip Dempsey, of Social Circle, Ga. From his rural perch, Atlanta, 45 minutes to the west, reminds him of of a “Blade Runner”-like no-man’s-land where “blood runs in the streets” – and where the threat from “thugs” is constant.

Urban residents, meanwhile, who see firsthand children riding their bikes and people walking dogs at night through formerly high-crime neighborhoods, are more likely to be aware of the gains. Also playing into the question of perception versus reality, criminologists say, is our polarized worldviews and how those views can be influenced and manipulated by Hollywood, the media, and politicians. Economic uncertainty, political unrest, and a lack of civility also erode people’s feelings of safety.

“The reason people so easily embrace this idea that things are bad out there … is because there is a level of discord. If we were all getting along and not distrusting our neighbor, we wouldn’t be so easily persuaded by a short-term spike in crime into thinking that the sky is falling,” says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox in Boston.

Instead, “it doesn’t matter that the homicide rate is half of what it was 25 years ago – those are just numbers,” adds Mr. Fox. “What matters is you can turn on a television set and see plenty of crime. We are saturated with crime.”

Crime is bad ... but not in my neighborhood

Yet dig deeper and criminologists and political scientists suggest that rising crime is not top of mind for political strategists nor, necessarily, US police departments, the vast majority of which are seeing the positive impacts of data-driven policing strategies.

And a large majority of Americans as a whole, at least by some measurements, feel relatively safe in their own surrounds. In findings that have been mirrored elsewhere,  a Journal of General Internal Medicine study found only 8.7 percent of Americans over 50 regarded their immediate neighborhood as unsafe; 68 percent considered it “very safe.”

“People hear rhetoric about crime, they see crime on the evening news, but they know in their own minds that they are safer than they used to be,” says Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program in New York. That, he says, “is why, even if they think crime is going up in the United States, many feel like their neighborhood is safer than ever.”

In fact, he adds, “cities have been the principal beneficiary of crime declining – and that includes New York City, which now has a lower murder rate than the nation as a whole, where 20 years ago it was a dangerous city.”

To be sure, a spike in violence in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., drove a national murder rate increase in 2015 and 2016. But this year, the rate appears once again to be tacking downward – even in Chicago. The murder rate is projected to fall by 2.5 percent in 2017, according to the Brennan Center. If that holds true, it would be the lowest since 2009.

White House view of crime

Yet outsize crime fears clearly have had political impact in the US – and could extend to policy as the Trump administration pushes for higher mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and scales back ethics oversight of local police departments.

Mr. Trump earlier this year noted correctly that “the murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century.” (Criminologists point out that even with that spike, the murder rate was still well below 1990s levels.)

His statement, as well as speeches by Mr. Sessions, feed into a broader narrative of how the rise in inner-city murder rates in 2015 and 2016 were part of a longer-term trend that to some suggested America, in the Obama era, was coddling criminals while over-focusing on rogue cops and corrupt police departments.

“Trump’s approach was to make America scared again, and he did,” says Professor Fox.

Ahead of Election Day, 57 percent of respondents to a Pew survey said crime has gotten worse in the US since 2008, including 78 percent of Trump supporters and 37 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters. Meanwhile, the reality was that US violent crime fell by 19 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to the FBI.

Reasons behind the decline

At the same time, many Americans intrinsically understand that violence is being curtailed by a plethora of broader factors, some not yet fully understood, says American University criminologist Joseph Young, who studies the consequences of political violence.

“We have seen sustained economic growth and we’ve also seen a lot of inner cities invigorated and gentrified, which in turn has squeezed problems into other places,” says Professor Young. Police, he notes, have also become far more adept in mapping Big Data to target high-crime zones in near real-time, which in turn leads to better community-relations as police pay more attention to what is driving local complaints.

That suggests to some that the stoking of fears about crime is political. “If the president said this is the safest Americans have ever been – that wouldn’t get you very far politically,” says Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard.

Some of the concern about threats in rural Trump country, at least, may be justified, though perhaps the object of their concern is misplaced. A 2013 Annals of Emergency Medicine study found that the personal risk of injury death – including violent crime and accidents – is more than 20 percent higher in the countryside than it is in large urban areas. In other words, while homicide risks remain higher in cities, people are safer in cities than in rural areas when accidents are also factored in.

In terms of the decline in crime so far this year, conservatives point out that gun crimes have declined in the US even as gun ownership and liberalized gun-carry laws have expanded. And others are quick to credit Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric for the projected downtick.

But whether the Trump administration has really driven the agenda is a far different question, says Professor Woodard. In fact, Woodard says he is consulting for a Republican statewide campaign in South Carolina, and crime has not been a top strategy topic. “I don’t sense that most of the voting populace feels like we’re in a violent period – quite the opposite,” he says.

On the policy front, two weeks ago, the Republican-led Congress balked at a Sessions plan to expand civil asset forfeiture, a controversial program that allows police to seize the assets of suspects who have not been convicted of a crime. And from state to state, one of the few areas of political bipartisanship has been around criminal justice reforms.

Georgia, a ruby-red state, has led the way by introducing strong prison diversion programs and making it easier for former convicts to get jobs and rebuild their lives.

“There’s been a growing view on the left and right since the 1990s that crime and violence aren’t problems you can … incarcerate your way out of,” says Mr. Grawert. “There’s a growing consensus that we can have a safer and freer society, with a better criminal justice system, and there are people on both sides invested in that. There are strong Republican voices like [Sen.] Chuck Grassley flatly saying, ‘Crime isn’t out of control.’ That’s a big reason why the fear-mongering rhetoric hasn’t been as successful as one might fear.”

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