2020 was a unique year in many senses, and one worrying change in 2020 was an increase in violence that seems to be continuing through 2021. Crime rates have been falling across the United States since a peak in the 1990s, until a reversal in the trend in 2020. We have not yet seen whether it is an anomaly related to the COVID-19 Pandemic that will dissipate, or whether it reflects a new trajectory of violence that we need to be concerned about. Nevertheless, crime has recently been on an uptick after a long decline.
People may currently be aware of an increase in crime, but that likely doesn’t mean that the increase in crime feels new to them. Despite the recent falling crime rates, people’s general perception of crime is that it had been increasing before 2020. The perception of increasing crime did not match the continual drop in crime, at least not until 2020. Part of the misperception seems to come from the constant news reporting of crime and better measures of crime by police and the FBI. Christopher Jencks wrote about this in his book The Homeless, “police have spent billions of dollars computerizing their record keeping systems, so crimes that get reported are more likely to become part of the office record. Improved reporting and record-keeping plus highly selective news reporting have, in turn, helped convince the public that their neighborhoods are more dangerous.”
Having good information, data, and statistics for crime is a good thing. It is important that we have a good and accurate sense of how much crime and violence is taking place in our cities, who is committing the crime, and who tends to be the victims. However, new data reporting and collecting abilities can make it seem like there is more crime than there used to be, simply because we can better collect and report that information. Better collecting and reporting means that news stations can run more stories about crimes that previously would have gone unreported, increasing the prevalence of crime in the news, building the sense of danger that people feel. With broader news reporting and an online news system driven by clicks, we also see more crime that takes place outside our communities, even when browsing local news websites.
This can ultimately have negative effects for society. While it is good to have accurate information, that information can be misleading and misused. Increasing people’s sense of danger for political ends can erode social trust and lead to profiling and dangerous policing policies that have racial disparities. It can lead to disinvestment in areas that people deem dangerous and can limit the interactions that people are willing to have in their communities, furthering disinvestment and reinforcing a sense of danger. Context is the key and is easy to leave out when reporting crime and discussing individual crimes within larger trends. Our recent uptick in crime against a background of misperception could be especially dangerous, with extreme reactions against increases in crimes that may end up being driven by the peculiar circumstances of the Pandemic. We should work to make our cities and communities safer, but we should also work to make sure people have an accurate perception of the safety or danger of their communities.