Crime: The Striking Gap between Perceptions and Reality

by John Sides on October 14, 2009 · 11 comments

in Public opinion

A new survey from Gallup suggests that “Americans perceive increased crime in U.S.” The increase in the last 8 years is notable:

gallupcrime.gif

Do perceptions meet reality? Gallup says:

Whether there actually has been an increase in crime this year is hard to substantiate at this point, since official crime statistics for 2009 will not be released until next year. The most recent statistics, for the year 2008, show that crime in the U.S. decreased last year from 2007. Consistent with that change, Gallup’s 2008 measurement also showed a decline in the percentage of Americans perceiving more crime in the United States, from 71% in 2007 to 67% in 2008.

This misses the most important finding, however. Since 2001, perceptions of crime have become far worse even as the actual crime rate has remained stable. I took FBI’s violent crime rate from 1989-2008 and matched it up as best as possible to Gallup poll numbers for each year (eyeballing the graph above to determine the year in which each poll was conducted). Click here or click the graph to make it larger and more legible.

crime.png

For 1991-2001, perceptions line up nicely with reality. But in 2002-2008, a larger percentage of Americans perceived an increase in crime than one would expect, given the actual crime rate. It appears that 2009 will only continue this trend. A graph with the property crime rate would show a similar finding.

One can speculate about the reasons. September 11th seems an unlikely cause, especially of the increase since 2005. Local television news consumption affects certain beliefs about crime, according to this research by Frank Gilliam and Shanto Iyengar. But I don’t really think there’s been a massive uptick in local news consumption, or local news coverage of crime (which seems a perennial staple—if it bleeds it leads, etc.).

I welcome additional speculation in comments.

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