By Ann Harkins, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Debra Whitcomb, former Director of Research, National Crime Prevention Council, Washington, D.C.
he U.S. public thinks crime is a serious problem and believes that crime is worse today than it was in 2006. This finding was consistent across national surveys conducted in the fall of 2007 by three different organizations: Gallup;1 the Center for Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College;2 and Third Way,3 a Washington, D.C., think tank. Yet this perception runs counter to the facts: crime rates have dropped off dramatically since the early 1990s for both violent and property crimes. The downward trend applies not only to crimes that are known to law enforcement agencies,4 but also to victimizations reported in household surveys,5 which include incidents that were never reported to authorities.
Fear of Crime Matters
Why should law enforcement care that people think crime is on the rise when it’s not? Law enforcement should care because fear of crime factors into people’s decisions about where they go and what they do—affecting their quality of life and the economy.
People avoid neighborhoods that are considered dangerous—even if they are not. They watch television rather than walk outside—even though most people believe their own neighborhoods are safe. They limit their children’s social activities—even though the gravest danger to children comes from people they know. As James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling so eloquently stated, “Our crime statistics and victimization surveys measure individual losses, but they do not measure communal losses.”6
Avoidance behaviors like these have important consequences. Most obviously, they diminish the quality of life for the people who engage in them. But actions taken due to fear of crime have significant results that spill over into other aspects of daily life. When a neighborhood is perceived to be dangerous, businesses will suffer, property values will plummet, and the local economy will decline.
Research is mixed on the relationship between the economy and crime, but some studies suggest reasons for concern that crime rates will climb again:
- Mortgage foreclosures have reached crisis levels in many communities—and neighborhoods with higher rates of foreclosures tend to experience more violent crime.7
- Consumer confidence is trending downward—and as consumers lose confidence, crime, particularly robbery and property crime, tends to rise.8
A recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors confirms that these factors are, indeed, driving increases in crime in certain cities:
- 42 percent of the 124 responding cities reported that they are seeing increased crime as a result of current economic conditions.
- 29 percent reported an increase in crime resulting from the mortgage foreclosure crisis and the increase in the number of vacant and abandoned properties.9
Criminologist Alfred Blumstein sees additional reasons for concern:
- Young people lacking high school or college diplomas are not able to find good jobs.
- Social services at all levels of government have less money to spend on the needy.
- Law enforcement responsibilities have expanded to include homeland security and proactive terrorism prevention as well as crime.
- Emerging drug markets may provoke violence, “especially if the principal participants in those markets are from communities with a strong tradition for violence.”
- An estimated 650,000 prisoners will be returning to communities each year.
- Guns are more prevalent in certain disadvantaged communities than they were before the crack cocaine era of the late 1980s-early 1990s.10
Since 2005, the violent crime rate has varied somewhat from year to year, most recently posting a decrease of 0.7 percent in 2007.11
However, national statistics mask the reality in some cities that have experienced alarming spikes in violent crime: 45 of 56 cities responding to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum reported increases in robberies between 2004 and 2006. The robbery rate jumped more than 12 percent, and aggravated assaults with a firearm increased nearly 10 percent.12 Similarly, half of the 124 cities responding to the U.S. Conference of Mayors survey reported increases in violence among young people over the last year, specifically, 51 percent of the cities reported an increase in gang violence, 21 percent an increase in school violence, 15 percent an increase in gun violence, and 10 percent of cities reported an increase in assaults by juveniles.13
This is not the time to become complacent about crime.
Crime Is Costly
The financial costs of crime are borne not only by victims, but also by their families, employers, insurers, communities, and by society as a whole. Even though crime rates fluctuate overall, the financial cost of crime continues to mount:
- In 2005, crime victims incurred more than $17 billion,14 up from $16 billion in 2004.
- Also in 2005, federal, state, and local governments spent about $204 billion for police protection, corrections, and judicial and legal activities associated with crime15 compared to $185 billion in 2003.16
- For corrections alone, state general fund expenditures topped $44 billion in 2007, up 315 percent since 1987.17
These estimates do not include costs incurred by financial crimes, including consumer fraud and identity theft. In 2007, Consumer Sentinel, a complaint database developed and maintained by the Federal Trade Commission, received over 250,000 identity theft complaints, accounting for 32 percent of the total of 813,899 consumer fraud complaints received.18
Consumers lost an estimated $1.2 billion to fraud that year—and this number is escalating. These figures are particularly alarming because identity theft and fraud cross jurisdictional boundaries, and apprehension and prosecution rates are very low. Prevention is the best tool available to guard against the devastating impact of financial crimes.
Numerous studies, summarized in a 2005 report of the National Crime Prevention Council, point to the cost-effectiveness of crime prevention initiatives. 19 Investments in crime prevention should be welcome in an era of tight budgets at all levels of government. To maximize these investments’ impact, everyone—not only government and law enforcement agencies—must act to reduce crime.
National Crime Prevention Policy
With violent crime poised to increase, the costs of crime escalating, and U.S. citizens believing that crime is getting worse, government leaders need to chart a new course for crime prevention. National policy makers can consider lessons learned from research and experience, and proceed toward a reasoned approach to an effective, long-term crime prevention policy.
Some roles only the federal government can fulfill:20
- Leadership, through funding, technical assistance, and support for innovations and initiatives that exceed the resources of individual state and local governments
- Evaluation and development, to identify and promote best practices
- Infrastructure enhancement, by underwriting specialized task forces and technological advances to encourage multijurisdictional collaboration and leverage resources
Draw Attention to Prevention
Meanwhile, even without a national policy, local governments, police departments, and enterprising individuals and organizations in communities can make a difference by educating the public about crime, their risk of victimization, and prevention strategies. Most of these strategies depend heavily on people and businesses keeping watch over their neighborhoods and communities, working in tandem with their local law enforcement agencies, and serving as their eyes and ears.
Sociologist Mark Warr argues in Fear of Crime in the United States that the public suffers when its perceptions of crime differ from the reality. People with an exaggerated fear of crime may modify their behaviors in ways that limit their work or leisure activities. Conversely, people who underestimate their risks may fail to take commonsense, protective measures, exposing themselves to crime.
Dr. Warr suggests three ways to better align perceptions with actual risk:21
- Educate people about the context of crimes that are reported in the media
- Educate them about the facts surrounding the likelihood of victimization
- Address the environmental cues to danger
All these efforts are mainstays of crime prevention, which the Crime Prevention Coalition of America defines as “a pattern of attitudes and behaviors directed both at reducing the threat of crime and enhancing the sense of safety and security, to positively influence the quality of life in our society, and to help develop environments where crime cannot flourish.”22
The Bigger Picture
Any crime that occurs can be viewed as an opportunity to educate the community about the objective reality of crime, and to offer specific prevention suggestions. NCPC has long been recognized as the nation’s leading resource for crime prevention information and education.
For example, when the media report that foreclosed homes in a particular neighborhood have attracted vandals and burglars, local police can explain why certain property left behind may be considered lucrative and then go on to offer tips for prevention.
The oft-cited “broken windows” theory of crime prevention argues that even relatively minor conditions in a neighborhood can signal inattention. But when broken windows are repaired, lawns mowed, and yards cleaned, these buildings will look as if they are still occupied—or at least cared for and closely watched. They will no longer be crime magnets. Mortgage holders, real estate agents, and neighbors welcome this kind of information.
Over the last few years, cyberbullying has emerged as a problem. The NCPC’s cyberbullying prevention advice to teenagers is “If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. Delete cyberbullying. Don’t write it. Don’t forward it.”
Teens have figured out ways to prevent cyberbullying by doing the following:
- Refusing to pass along cyberbullying messages
- Telling friends to stop cyberbullying
- Blocking communication with cyberbullies
- Reporting cyberbullying to a trusted adult
- Speaking with other students, as well as teachers and school administrators, to develop rules against cyberbullying
- Raising awareness of the cyberbullying problem in their communities by holding assemblies and creating fliers to give to younger kids or parents
- Sharing NCPC’s anti-cyberbullying message with friends23
NCPC raises awareness and offers prevention tips and resources on a wide variety of issues affecting everyone from children to seniors. Visit www.ncpc.org to learn more.
Communicating an Understanding of the Risk
According to the John Jay survey, two-thirds of Americans get most of their information about crime from television news broadcasts. Of necessity, the evening news highlights crimes deemed newsworthy either because the incidents are unusual or because the victims or offenders are public figures. The time allotted for these news items allows little more than a sound bite—who, what, when, and where. As a result, the viewing audience gets a skewed version of criminal incidents, and their fears may be raised unnecessarily or unreasonably.24
For example, when a child is reported to have been abducted by a stranger—every parent’s worst nightmare—the public should be aware that approximately 100 such cases occur each year.25 This statistic is not meant to diminish the horror, but rather to assure parents how unlikely it is that any individual child will be victimized in this way. The next step is to educate parents about protecting their children from the more likely source of danger—people they know.
To help law enforcement communicate reliable information to the public after a high-profile local incident, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Advertising Council, Incorporated, developed 10 radio rapid-response public service announcements (PSAs). Each PSA covers a specific issue:
- Home invasion
- Kids and theft
- Prevention at work
- School violence (for both kids and parents)
- Senior fraud
- Sexual assault
- Threats to children
Each PSA can be localized, and all are available through NCPC. If used effectively, these materials can help the media deliver a more prevention-focused message to allay unnecessary fear in their communities.
Address Environmental Cues
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) is a long-standing practice that relies on creative and effective use of the built environment to reduce the fear and incidence of crime and to instill improvements in the quality of life.26 Since its inception more than 25 years ago, NCPC has trained law enforcement officers and other community leaders across the United States in CPTED principles and strategies. Strategically placed lighting, creative landscaping, and alternative traffic patterns are examples of incorporating crime prevention into the built environment.
|Several women had been sexually assaulted in the ground-level laundry room of an apartment building. Crime prevention specialists from NCPC and local law enforcement inspected the area and offered several recommendations|
- Rearrange the laundry facilities to allow unobstructed views of all areas of the room from the windows
- Install better lighting in those areas
- Trim shrubbery around the windows to increase visibility
After these measures were implemented, there were no more assaults.
Leadership Is the Key
Strong leadership can move crime prevention to the forefront for policymakers at all levels of government and for individual citizens. By supporting prevention—through funding, legislation, and dissemination of best practices—law enforcement leaders can pave the way for safer and economically vibrant neighborhoods.
Through the National Citizens’ Crime Prevention Campaign, the National Crime Prevention Council trains crime prevention professionals and concerned citizens in effective strategies to help reduce crime in their communities. Informative publications, school curricula, community outreach, and a dynamic Web site help all Americans understand that preventing crime is everyone’s business. ■
1“Gallup’s Pulse of Democracy: Crime,” Gallup, www.gallup.com/poll/1603/Crime.aspx (accessed April 11, 2008).
2Global Strategy Group, “John Jay Poll on Public Attitudes Towards Crime and Crime Reporting, 2007,” Center on Media, Crime and Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, www.jjay.cuny.edu/cmcj/pdfs/JohnJay_Poll.pdf, accessed (March 5, 2008).
3“Third Way Crime Poll Highlights,” www.thirdway.org/data/product/file/120/TW_Crime_Poll_Toplines_wHighlights.pdf (accessed February 26, 2008).
4U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2006, table 1, www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2006/data/table_01.html (accessed April 27, 2008).
5U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization, 2006 (Washington, D.C.: December 2007).
6George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic Monthly (March 1982): 29–38, www.theatlantic.com/doc/198203/broken-windows (accessed December 9, 2009).
7Dan Immergluck and Geoff Smith, “The Impact of Single-Family Mortgage Foreclosures on Neighborhood Crime,” research report (Chicago: Woodstock Institute, 2005).
8Richard Rosenfeld and Robert Fornango, “The Impact of Economic Conditions on Robbery and Property Crime: The Role of Consumer Sentiment,”Criminology 45, no. 4 (2007): 735–770.
9The U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008 Economic Downturn and Federal Inaction Impact on Crime (August 6, 2008), www.usmayors.org/maf/CrimeReport_0808.pdf (accessed August 7, 2008).
10Alfred Blumstein, “The Crime Drop in America: An Exploration of Some Recent Crime Trends,” Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention 7, no. 2, Suppl. no. 1 (December 2006): 17–35.
11U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Violent Crime,” Crime in the United States, 2007, www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2007/offenses/violent_crime/index.html, (accessed September 16, 2008).
12Police Executive Research Forum, Violent Crime in America: 24 Months of Alarming Trends, (Washington, D.C.: March 2007), www.policeforum.org/upload/Violent%20Crime%20Report%203707_140194792_392007143035.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
13U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2008 Economic Downturn and Federal Inaction Impact on Crime.
14U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Expenditure and Employment Statistics,” www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/eande.htm (accessed April 7, 2008).
15U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Victimization in the United States, 2005: Statistical Tables, table 82 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007), www.ojp.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/cvus05.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
16Kristen A. Hughes, Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 2003 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics,April 2006), NCJ 212260, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/jeeus03.pdf (accessed April 7, 2008).
17One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, citing the National Association of State Budget Officers’ 2007 State Expenditure Report (Philadelphia, PA: Pew Center on the States), 12, fig. Twenty years of rising costs, www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/8015PCTS_Prison08_FINAL_2-1-1_FORWEB.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
18Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data: January–December 2007 (Washington, D.C.: 2008), 4–5, www.ftc.gov/opa/2008/02/fraud.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
19National Crime Prevention Council, “Preventing Crime Saves Money” Topics in Crime Prevention (Washington, D.C.: Fall 2005) www.ncpc.org/programs/celebrate-safe-communities/csc-electronic-media-kit/Preventing%20Crime%20Saves%20Money%20Topics%20Newsletter.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
20National Criminal Justice Association, “The Role of the Federal Government in Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice,” March 2005, www.ncja.org/Content/NavigationMenu/GovernmentAffairs/AdvocacyMaterials/FederalGovernmentandJusticeAdministrationWhitePaper/FederalGovernmentandJusticeAssistance.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
21Mark Warr, “Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy,” in Measurement and Analysis of Crime and Justice, ed. David Duffee, (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, 2000), 4:451–489, www.ncjrs.gov/criminal_justice2000/vol_4/04i.pdf (accessed December 9, 2009).
22 Crime Prevention Coalition, Crime Prevention in America: Foundations for Action (Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council, 1990), 64.
23National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), Teens and Cyberbullying (Washington, D.C.: NCPC, 2007).
24Sara Tiegreen and Elana Newman, “Violence: Comparing Reporting and Reality,” Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, February 18, 2009, www.dartcenter.org/research/fact_sheets/fact_sheet5.php (accessed April 28, 2009).
25Andrea J. Sedlak, David Finkelhor, Heather Hammer, and Dana J. Schultz, “National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview,” in National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, October 2002), 7.
26For more information about Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), visit www.ncpc.org.