Friday, October 28, 2011

Fear, Reality and Crime Statistics

There was a piece over at the Indiana news outlet WLFI.com about crime numbers in Lafayette, Indiana. What I found interesting about this was the difference between the public's perception of crime in the community and what an analysis of crime statistics by Lafayette Police's crime analyst revealed.
A police action shooting that killed a man after he stabbed an officer in his face left a woman saying, "How horrible Lafayette is turning out!" Some others NewsChannel 18 spoke with around town had similar concerns about the crime rate. 
"It's a little bit more crime than when I used to come here and visit my grandma when I was a kid," said Allen Ferguson, who now delivers pizza around West Lafayette. 
But Lafayette Police Crime Analyst Steve Hawthorne said those concerns are unfounded. 
"I would certainly disagree with them," Hawthorne said. "We've certainly been seeing the crime decrease over the years, steadily for the past five years or so. Now we do see some inconsistency by month, but that's typical."
There are probably a number of reasons why the public's perception of crime doesn't square with reality. The media probably plays a role in this, after all their job is to get people to buy their papers or to watch their news broadcast. Lurid crime stories tend to draw readers/viewers so there is a natural tendency for people to focus on these events.

The media is also more ubiquitous than ever before with smartphone apps, websites, Twitter, Facebook etc. People now spend more time immersed in news stories from all over the globe within minutes of an event occurring. This constant barrage of crime stories reinforces the mistaken perception that crime is "everywhere" and getting worse.

We also have a tendency to want to believe the worst. If there is a murder in your community, how many times do you find yourself thinking "What's this world coming to?" But according to the 2010 Uniform Crime Reports the reality of murder is this:
An estimated 14,748 persons were murdered nationwide in 2010. This was a 4.2 percent decrease from the 2009 estimate, a 14.8 percent decrease from the 2006 figure, and an 8.0 percent decrease from the 2001 estimate.
According to Centers For Disease Control statistics, In 2009 there were 16,591 deaths due to assault/homicides. However, the leading cause of death was heart disease with 598,607 deaths. Homicide isn't even in the top ten leading causes of death (it's #15). In fact, you're more likely to die of Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, suicide, the flu, diabetes, accidents, cancer, etc. than for you to have murder listed on your death certificate.

So next time you see a crime story that gets your anxiety level up, take a deep breath and remember the reality is probably not as bad as we perceive it to be.


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