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High Crime and Misperceptions

Have you ever wondered about crime in the US, and how bad it is? A lot of people feel like the world is really unsafe - but would you believe that we are safer now than we’ve been in the last 30 years? It’s true, and it’s what we’d like to call a perception gap.

SOURCE: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Gallup
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Editor's note: This page includes a transcript of episode one, "High Crimes and Misperceptions." To listen to the episode, please visit our landing page.

EPISODE ONE TRANSCRIPT

SAMANTHA LAINE PERFAS: Take a moment and think about crime in the US. If you were to compare crime rates from 25 years ago to today, when do you think it was more dangerous? Do you feel like it's safer then, or now. If you're like most people you think it's either undeniably worse or perhaps the same. It turns out, that's a perception gap.

I'm Samantha Laine Perfas and this is Perception Gaps from The Christian Science Monitor.

We’re actually the safest we've been in decades. But there's a big difference between what we perceive to be true and what statistics actually show. We call that a perception gap. I took a few minutes to dive into the numbers, so bear with me here. According to a Pew Research Center crime statistics, the US shows a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 90s. Numbers from the FBI show the crime rate fell 48 percent in 25 years. That's nearly half. And Bureau of Justice Statistics from their annual surveys show the rate fell 74 percent during that same timeframe. That's huge progress.

But what Pew also found is that public perception rarely lines up with reality. Seventeen Gallup surveys conducted since the early 90s found that at least six in 10 Americans thought there was more crime in the US compared with the year before. Reading that, I thought this was really interesting. I mean I assume that with all the bad we constantly hear in the news, crime probably is at its highest. Which, statistically speaking, is false. I was curious if other people would have the same reaction than I did. So I took my recorder and went outside and I asked random people in Somerville, Mass. if they thought there was more crime now than in the past. And did it impact their fear of crime.

STREET INTERVIEWS: I’m definitely afraid. Because I just never, never really heard about it. And now it's just so prevalent today.

A lot of the media coverage of tends to focus on the negative aspects and if people are seeing that all the time and I think it's natural that you’re going to feel that it's getting worse even if it's not.

I just don't feel as comfortable walking down the street at night. I'm just saying, in a world where I am a recovering addict, I see a lot more probably than the regular person sees.

Anything can happen. I just feel like you can’t trust anybody.

I think that people have less faith in institutions that are designed to protect us.

Definitely more crime, more shooting. It’s a different area. I’m in my fifties, it’s a different time. Kids are more wild, not as calm as they used to be. Things are different now, from back 20 years ago, so it makes you be more afraid because of all the fear that's in your face.

It’s more dangerous for me. But I think that people feel more emboldened to act on their baser impulses with the person in the White House today. So in that sense I don’t feel that safe. People get scared they tend to vote a certain way or then they get armed. That’s kind of where we are right now.

You know I actually think it's probably about the same. I just think that it's so in our face with Facebook and Twitter and all of social media. So I think we're just much more impacted by it.

PERFAS: Man. If I had a nickel for every time someone said that it's the media's fault we're so afraid... I'd have a lot of nickels. As a member of the media, it's hard not to feel frustrated with the sentiment. Mostly because I agree that the media plays a big role in how people feel. So in that spirit: I'm really sorry. Hopefully you know that here at the Monitor, we take this really seriously and we do everything we can to cover the news in a way that helps you understand the world instead of making you afraid. Anyways, it was interesting to hear people's perspective on crime. And it's lining up pretty evenly with what Pew found. Most people thought that crime was either worse or the same. And a few people thought it was slightly better. I didn't include all of the clips I got. One, that would have been way too long, and two, there were a lot of awkward interactions. But I found that there were a few recurring themes: the media plays up crime; we don't really know the people around us or what they might do; in some cases the police complicate the perception of crime; and just generally, you never know if something's going to happen to you. So, we’re fed a lot of information. But maybe it's not the right information. This episode I'm going to explore that, and talk to a few people who know things, and maybe it will challenge our views on crime. Oh, before we dig in here's a little bit of awkwardness.

PERFAS: Hi. I'm doing just a random street polling to see people’s fear on crime.

STREET: I have great fear.

PERFAS: Don't know if you can hear that, but he yelled I have great fear of crime, as he’s running away from a tiny girl on the street.

NICOLE RADER: I try really hard when I talk to people and when I have conversations about crime to explain that even though you've been kind of sold this message your whole life, these are the statistics and these are the facts.

PERFAS: That's Nicole Rader. She's the associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi State, and she's been researching the fear of crime for over 20 years. So we set up a time to chat about some of her research and what she's found.

PERFAS: Just to kind of dive right in, I'm curious what drew you to research fear of crime.

RADER: Over the years that I was in college, I began thinking about why people were so afraid when there were statistics and facts and things that indicated that they shouldn't be. And most of the people that I knew who were afraid of crime seemed like very smart people. And so I wanted to understand why there was a disconnect between fear and actual crime.

PERFAS: Yeah and that's something that we found too. There's this huge perception gap.

RADER: Yes. So we've seen declines in crime actual crime over the past 20 years and our fear of crime rates have either stayed the same or they've gone up slightly. So yes, there's definitely a disconnect between the two.

PERFAS: The background is great. But I want to really get at the heart of this issue and the thing that interests me the most. So, we know that this gap exists. But what I don't know is why.

RADER: Crime is very sensationalized through the media and also through television. So fictional crime dramas are extremely popular right now. And so when you see things on television all the time you assume that that is the reality of the situation. You have this misconception about what's actually happening in the world.

PERFAS: When I was reading your research, I saw that the biggest predictors is actually gender, with women being much more afraid than men, but women are actually less likely to be the victims of crime, which I thought was fascinating because women are always the victims.

RADER: Right. Right. Yes.

PERFAS: So yeah, can you talk about that a little bit?

RADER: We see in society that not only are women more afraid of crime, but also women are really the targets for crime prevention campaigns. So if you think about how women are told don't go out late at night, don't go out without your friends, make sure that you do all of these different things, and men don't really get those same messages. And so I've always been really interested in why we tell women to be more afraid of crime and we give them all of these tools to prevent crime from happening, but we are not actually telling them things that are helpful for women. What we know when we look at crime statistics is that women are much more likely to be hurt by someone they know. So the stranger danger myth is not a reality, it is a myth. We also know that most of the crime prevention techniques that we are giving to women are not going to help them in the long run. Because they're going to be hurt most likely by someone they know, avoiding going out late at night by yourself is not going to prevent anything from happening to you.

PERFAS: Yeah. Women are, socially, even anecdotally in my own life, I feel relatively safe in my community. But I feel guilty saying I walk home alone at night. I do. I don’t feel afraid but I almost feel like I'm not allowed to say that to other people. That they're going to be like, you're just asking for it. Even if you're not likely to be the victim, you never know. So right before this interview I actually went out and talked to random people on the street just to get their general thoughts. And it's actually funny how afraid people are of you if you are a random person trying to ask them questions on the street.

RADER: Yeah exactly!

PERFAS: Yeah, but a lot of the women I talked to they were like, well I know I've never been victimized, but I know someone or I've heard of someone and you just never know. Even if it's not likely, you never know yet.

RADER: So I think most people in general, both women and men, are afraid of random. They're afraid of the random acts of violence and we see a lot of those things on television. Right. So whether you're watching crime shows or the news, most of those episodes and events involve random acts of violence. And what is interesting is that we really don't explain to Americans and women in particular that they are going to be hurt by people that they associate with. The person who is most likely to hurt you is not going to be a total stranger. It's going to be a boyfriend or an uncle or someone that you're friends with. And that seems more scary to people, I think, in some ways, to have that conversation, or not even scary I guess, but more taboo to say someone you love might hurt you.

PERFAS: Well, and I think it's easier to be afraid of the unknown boogeyman on the street than a boyfriend or close friend or whoever it may be. Have you come across any solutions or any ways that we could actually challenge that fear and put it in its right place?

RADER: Yeah I do think that first just providing correct information to people is a very important thing that we can do. So any time that I hear people talk about their fear, I try really hard first to be respectful of that fear. Because like I said, when I started with this topic of study 20 years ago, the first thing that struck me was that very smart women and very smart people had misconceptions. And so I believe that that fear is a legitimate fear. It suggests that it's a misplaced fear because we've been taught this from so many different angles that it's hard for us to get around.

PERFAS: Nicole and I talked about fear of crime when it comes to women for a while because, well, I am a woman and it directly applies to me. It's so interesting to hear how my own misperceptions impact how I live my life and how a lot of my female friends live their lives. Like Nicole said, a lot of smart women and men have a misplaced fear of crime. Don't get me wrong, it's still a problem. Domestic violence is a major issue, so I'm not saying we should ignore it. But if we're teaching women that they should be afraid of strangers rather than to more critically think about their friends and families, that's a problem. It increases fear without actually addressing the real issue. Now, I want to talk with Nicole about something else. I've been thinking a lot about communities and what makes some safer than others or even just feel safer than others. What impacts fear of crime in the places we live? Has something changed that makes us more afraid now?

RADER: OK. So I would say that when we're thinking about communities and fear, one of the main predictors of fear within the community is just transition. So if you're in a community where you know your neighbors, you've lived there for a long time, you don't have a lot of people coming in and out of that community, you are going to feel safer. At least that's what the research would suggest. But if you live in a community where you have a lot of groups coming in and out - so not only just individuals but different groups of people that are coming in and out of communities - that can also cause fear as well.

PERFAS: And that kind of goes back to that stranger danger mentality. If someone is different and it's someone I don't know, they’re probably bad for me.

RADER: Yeah. Well, and if you think about it just that on a totally logical level, trust and fear are kind of the opposites of each other. Right. So a lot of why people are afraid is because they don't have trust in certain things. So they don't trust other people, they don't trust police, they don't trust communities, they don't trust their neighbors. And so to make people less afraid you have to instill a sense of trust in people. And like I said, I think knowledge is very powerful here, so understanding that someone breaking into your house in the middle of the night is extremely rare. Or it's less likely. And so when we look at crime statistics as an example, burglaries are most likely to happen between 10 am and 2 pm in the middle of the day. Most people don't realize that. So just having a better sense of of these facts is really good, but also making sure that everyone in the community sees the community as important to them as also something that you can do. And so making sure that you know not just from a crime standpoint but also, we're going to have this parade or we're going to have this festival or we're going to bring people together. Getting to know neighbors and really getting them to be a part of their community should actually decrease fear. Because I think a lot of fear of crime is about the fear of the unknown.

PERFAS: So trust is key it seems. Trust in the system, in the government, our communities. And when I was talking to people on the street, and even some of my own friends, I was surprised to hear how often people mentioned police. Before we go into this next section, I want to clarify something. Police are a huge part of any community. And they play a big part in how secure communities feel. Lately the police have received a lot of media attention and not always for good reasons. But here's what I'm not saying: that police always contribute to fear. Not true. In fact the latest Gallup poll shows that 57 percent of Americans trust the police a lot or a great deal. But since there is still a group of Americans that report having mixed feelings of trust when it comes to police, I wanted to learn a little bit more about where they are coming from. I wanted to talk to someone about situations in which police might cause fear instead of the sense of security.

PERFAS: Could you just introduced yourself?

JOSH HINKLE: Yeah. Joshua Hinkle, I'm an associate professor here at Georgia State University in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

PERFAS: Josh Hinkel also studies fear of crime, and one of the things he looks at is police tactics and how police action actually impacts the perception of crime and safety in the communities that they police. He's talking a bit about why he got into studying fear of crime. One reason being the idea of broken window policing. Essentially, if police clean up communities and stop smaller crime (littering, loitering, vandalism), then it will discourage bigger crime from happening in the first place. The conclusions on whether or not this method is effective are mixed. But Josh and his team conducted one study that looked at not just the impact of broken window policing on crime, but also the impact on how safe the communities actually felt.

HINKLE: One study we did looking at the aggressive police crackdown on disorder in Jersey City, New Jersey in the late 90s-early 2000s found that the police were very successful in cleaning up disorder, but they had kind of a backfire effect that they were so aggressive and had such a heavy presence, the people that lived in those areas were actually more afraid of crime. So we hypothesized it might just be the effect of the police presence being aggressive, lots of action but not a lot of communication with the community about why, so people may have well inferred that stuff must be getting worse here, crime must be serious if the police are around so much.

PERFAS: So rather than having police come in and clean up crime, which I think was their intention, what they actually did was just make it appear to be more dangerous to the people that live there?

HINKLE: Yes, yes. Even though our data showed that the disorder went down, crime went down, it was very effective in those goals, there wasn't a lot of communication with the community about what they were doing. So our surveys of people that lived in those areas found that even though the areas were cleaned up and crime was down, they were safer in other words, they were actually more afraid than the people that lived just a couple blocks away from there where the police didn't do anything different or extra.

PERFAS: So if they were more afraid or if fear was still at the same level, is that a bad thing? Does that have a negative impact on crime?

HINKLE: I think the bigger issue is, you know people pay tax dollars, they want the police to help clean up their neighborhoods, make them feel safer, improve their quality of life. And this study really showed in that case when they didn't involve the community in those efforts, they didn't get that benefit. They achieved their goals of cleaning up disorder getting crime down at least during the time they were cracking down in the area. But it didn't make anyone feel safer. People who lived there didn't necessarily notice their efforts. So that would be unfortunate. Most police leaders would want the community to see what they've done and see that they've improved their neighborhood and that their quality of life is better and that they're safer than before.

HINKLE: You know, some of the burden is on us, too. There's been a bad tendency over the history of policing research to focus a lot on the outcomes. We very often only focus on, was it effective in reducing crime? We need to think a lot more about what are other things it could’ve impacted? Did it make the community feel safer, or did it have a backfire effect like one of my studies we talked about earlier where fear got worse? Did it help improve relationships in that community or did it undermine them?

PERFAS: When I was looking at one of the articles you sent me, I noticed there was a quote that was highlighted that was an observation 30 years ago, and it said: the most damaging of the effects of violent crime is fear, and that fear must not be belittled. I was just wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more, what exactly does that mean? Is that talking about how fear can be more damaging than we may expect?

HINKLE: What that quote really meant is we shouldn't belittle or undermine the impact of thinking about the impacts of a crime in the larger community. The community feels fearful, the quality of life goes down, property values can go down, and it causes lots of trickle effects out beyond that are ignored if we focus just on the crime, the victim, the offender, getting them justice and locking up the person that did it. And that's all great, but we don't often think about kind of the side effects that happen after crime and our responses to crime.

PERFAS: Are there ways that police can be active participants in decreasing fear in their communities and making it feel safer for people who live there?

HINKLE: Well, I think so for sure. A lot of programs associated with community policing like neighborhood watch are putting officers back in the community on foot patrol or bike patrol, where they're interacting with people in more neutral or positive settings more often. Having more community meetings does pretty consistently drive down fear of crime and improve people's opinions of the police. That goes a long way in thinking about the typical policing of the early 20th century to the present where they've mostly just been in cars, responding to calls and we’re only talking to them if we’ve been pulled over, or something's happened to us and we call them for assistance. And that's a situation where all our contact with the police were largely either negative or neutral, whereas when they get more directly involved in the community and those types of efforts, we have more positive interactions where they can just ask us how it's going and what problems do we have, what we would like to see them addressing, what could they do better. When they do those types of things, and do them well, it does reduce fear and help build relationships with the community.

PERFAS: It's really interesting because when I was talking to another criminologist, we talked a lot about stranger danger and how fear is often increased by the feeling that we don't know any of the people around us. So it's funny, because when you talk about how police are just, they’re in their squad cars, or they’re in these areas and we don't really interact with them unless there's a problem. Police almost become strangers in our communities and I feel like that may be a reason why community policing can be so valuable, is because it makes the police in your community not strangers anymore.

HINKLE: No, for sure, definitely, with all the controversies about police in the media too, it makes them not just people we don't know, but many people are afraid of the cops and with good reason when they read these stories. Having more just positive or neutral context between police and citizens helps break that down both ways: the community will see the police less as strangers and perhaps police over time will not be viewing people so suspicious and go into encounters and traffic stops as fearful as they are often now. Because there's been such a disconnect. The disconnect between police and community affects how both see each other, not just how the community sees the police.

PERRI JOHNSON: You know, we we have an ice cream truck. And I got an opportunity to go out on the ice cream truck. So I put up a sign behind the  ice cream truck that said free hugs and once I did that, you know, they lined up and everybody had to give me a hug before they could get ice cream.

PERFAS: That's Captain Perri Johnson, who has served in the St. Lewis police department for 25 years.

JOHNSON: You know as you're doing that they forget who you are. You know, it's like okay you know I get to give this guy a hug and I'm going get some ice cream. And that that was really cool because it took away the fear. There was something there that took away the fear, and at the end of the day there wasn't any fear. And it didn't bother them, the uniform that I wore.

PERFAS: I want to explain a bit more about who Captain Johnson is and why his perspective is so valuable. As he mentioned, he's a police officer and he was promoted to commander of the 6th District in St. Louis shortly after our interview. He is on the front lines of battling crime and fear in the community, a job that's both rewarding and really dangerous. And he's also an African-American man, part of a community that has sometimes felt targeted by those who are supposed to protect and serve. In many ways, he is a great example of where those two seemingly opposing perspectives collide. And he sees a lot of good.

JOHNSON: For the most part, a lot of our crime has gone down. You know, we have a new chief who makes an effort and allows us to make an effort to get out there and really engage with our communities in an effort to help us to fight crime. You know, we're fighting the stereotypes that are sometimes perpetuated in the media that don't always apply to every police department. You're going to always have some people that are fearful and some people that are going to perpetuate a certain stereotype towards law enforcement although crime is going down. You constantly have to examine how you're doing police work.

You know there's another story, I went into a school and there was a first grader that was afraid of the police and she was crying. So I'm like, holy cow, you know, what has happened in this poor baby's life that she's afraid of the police at first grade? So you know, years ago we would never take off any of our equipment or anything like that. It was just unheard of. So I was like okay, I’m going to take my badge off and give it to her. And so I took my badge off and I said, hey can you can you hold onto this for me? She's like yeah. And I says OK, I need you to really keep it safe for me. You know just really take care of it for me, keep it safe. She's like OK. So I gave it to her and let her hold it. And I went on interacting with the other children and we were laughing and joking. And by the end of the day she was kind of laughing and joking and I got a letter from the teacher a couple weeks later that said, hey she's no longer afraid of the police.

We have to get outside our box. Those were examples of things that years ago, officers never would have done. You know, when we get outside the box of who we are and who we represent, then we can really reach people. We can reach some of those community members that we may not have been able to reach because we get them to see us in a different light. You know I've been on the street I've been in specialized units that just ride the high crime areas. You know, looking for the baddest of the bad. You know, you got to get people to believe in you and you got to get people to get beyond the uniform.

Being an African-American officer, when I go out here I have to present myself in a way that people see me for who I am and get them to understand me for who I am as a person vs. what my culture is or what my profession is. You know, is it a little bit different? Yeah it is, because you see things happening to people with the same culture as you that involve people within the same profession as you. So that makes me work even harder to convince those that are out there that, hey guess what, we're not all the same because we wear the same uniform. A lot of us are different. And one of the things that I tell people is, guess what, I have sons that look just like you. You know and they look just like me that can be subject to coming across a bad officer and Iworry about that. Just like you. Sometimes when people hear that, then it kind of clicks that you know what, he's human just like. Yeah, I am, I have some of the same worries that you do. So you tell me how to together, how do we combat these worries. How do we how do we fix this.

There are just as many officers out here that aren't African-American that want to stand up and fight for the communities that they serve. You know, there are a lot of us out here that we just care for the people in the communities that we police. And you know, there are those of us out here that believe it doesn't have anything to do with skin color, it has to do with the content of our character. And when we let that shine through, then that enables the community to see past the skin color and to see past the uniform and see us for exactly who we are. We go from not just seeing people with our eyes, but being able to see people with our hearts. And you know, when you can get to that point then that's what makes a difference.

If we don't go out there and change the thought process or put ourselves in situations to be looked at differently, then who is? So as officers I think it's good we go out there and we make time to talk to the community because there are a lot of people out there that are afraid. And I think it is up to us to address and to try and fix that fear. Because you know, like I said, if we don't do it who's gonna do it?

PERFAS: If we don't do it, who's going to do it I think that's so powerful, not just in his role as a police officer but in all of our roles as community members. It's a collective effort. Now let's circle back to Nicole for a bit to think about how we can play a role in being that positive change and help close this perception gap between fear and crime.

RADER: We often forget as people that what we say to others around us makes such a huge impact and that impact is going to pay it forward in the sense that my child is going to grow up to have their children and tell their children similar stories and so on and so forth. And so it's really important that when we talk to our children, and I really do believe that this is the best place to start with fear of crime, that we explain to them the reality of the situation. And I think it's important that media outlets, like what you're doing today, that they ask questions about fear and crime statistics more criminologists. And so getting information from criminologists and learning from them what we know about crime facts can help us understand fear and also help us debunk some of the myths that we see with fear of crime today.

PERFAS: I want to repeat something that Nicole said: what we say matters. It seems so simple, but at the end of the day we often repeat story lines and information without really thinking about how credible those storylines are. Or look at what Josh said. And how sometimes what we think will help, doesn't really help at all. Or as Captain Johnson pointed out: sometimes we struggle to look beyond people's skin color, profession, personality, and we make assumptions that can undermine our sense of community. And we should challenge that.

I feel like I learned a ton about not just crime, but were some of my own misguided fears and anxieties come from: things people told me that are just not true. And some of those things people told me -- avoid strangers, avoid unfamiliar areas -- actually cause me to withdraw from my community. I don't want to do that. And I don't want other people to do that. The world is not as big and scary as we may think it is. We shouldn't be afraid to talk to each other on the street. Imagine if we all just challenged ourselves to be a little more engaged in the world around us. Even if it means talking to a few strangers.

Thanks for joining us for our first episode of Perception Gaps. Since this is our first episode, we want to know what you think. Let us know what you liked or didn't like. You can reach me a podcast@csmonitor.com. Also, you can subscribe to our weekly newsletter. Each week will include additional content. You'll get a note for me, some bonus features and some extra insight delivered straight to your inbox. It also makes it easy to share your favorite episodes with your friends and family. You can sign up at csmonitor.com/perceptiongaps.

And join us next time where we'll get political. If you're a Republican, how different are you really from a Democrat? It may surprise you. And I hope it challenges your perceptions.

We also want to give a shout out to all the people who made this episode possible: producer Dave Scott; our studio engineers Morgan Anderson, Ian Blaquiere, Tory Silver, and Tim Malone; original sound design by Noel Flatt and Morgan Anderson; and a special thanks to all my volunteer editors: Mark Sappenfield, Noelle Swan, Ben Fredrick, Matt Orlando, David Grant, Andy Bickerton, and Benji Rosen.

And I'm Samantha Laine Perfas. Thanks for listening to Perception Gaps.

COPYRIGHT: This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2018.

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