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:


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.


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.


Matt Jarvis October 14, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I wonder if Sept 11 is such a non-starter as you suggest.

What if 9/11 implanted the idea that “we” aren’t as “safe” as we “used to be?” (lots of quotes, I know, because every one of these things is a perception) Go with me here: 9/11 makes people more sensitive to their own mortality in every day life, so people are more sensitive to reports of crime.

Now, what to make of the 2005 additional bump (which seems to be about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of the 2001 bump)? Here I’m going to go WAY out on a limb and speculate that maybe increased attention to illegal immigration might play a role. This is PURE induction, in that attention to illegal immigration picked up in 2005. This wave of attention, as opposed to the wave in the 1990s, seems to me more focused on a stereotype of the immigrant as criminal. I don’t remember people talking about incarceration costs for illegal immigrants in the 1990s…it was all about social services then.

In a SENSE, this could all be tied to perceptions of “other” as a larger threat to life and limb post 9/11. In prior xenophobic waves, the threat was to our pocketbooks or culture; the Bush charge of “they hate our freedom” was laughed out of the room this go around. Rather, “they want to kill us” has had reverberations.

I’m not in love with the theory (it’s PURELY inductive and ad hoc), but I actually kinda like the 9/11 break point.

Jonathan Bernstein October 14, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I wouldn’t be surprised if Matt was on to something. I’d also suggest that general perceptions of the world might be bleeding into perceptions of crime — I wonder what happens if you use either a standard trust measure or even right track/wrong track as a control?

Jason McDaniel October 14, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Great post, and good comments from Matt Jarvis. This is truly disheartening data, especially from the point of view of someone who teaches Urban Politics, and I have been talking for years in class about declining crime rates, etc.

Perhaps this may be connected to perceptions of decreasing economic security?

Andrew October 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm

John: Given that the y-axis is perception of _change_ in crime, shouldn’t the x-axis be change in crime also? It seems really weird to me that perceptions of changes would track with actual rates.

Madmadmadmadman October 14, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I wouldn’t put money on it, but 9/11 doesn’t sound too implausible.

The 2004/2005 jump could come from the election year/non-election year difference. Gallup says it did the interviews in early October this time around. The 2004 election was in some respects a referendum on Bush’s 1st term, so half the country could muster some optimism for the status quo, or at least hope for the future. 2005 saw Bush’s approval ratings decline below 50% on their way down further; widespread frustration and malaise may lead one to overestimate how bad things actually are.

Michael October 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

This is a really interesting poll, but I think you made a mistake in your analysis. The Gallup poll asked people to estimate if crime had increased or decreased over the last year. So a person who thought crime was getting worse would answer “more”, even if they also believed that the crime rate was very low overall. When you made your graph, you compared the percent saying “more” to the actual violent crime rate, but you should have compared it to the year-to-year *change* in crime, since that’s what the poll respondents were estimating. When you look at the data this way, the story isn’t quite as mysterious. Crime declines rapidly during the 90s before leveling off during the last decade; public opinion seems to roughly track this but lags the actual data by a few years. I don’t have a blog, so I can’t post the graph, but I’m sure if you re-plot the data you’ll see what I’m referring to.

neil October 15, 2009 at 10:46 am

One thing that stands out to me is that the first year where the perception of crime increased over the last year, 2001, is also the first year where the crime rate didn’t actually decrease by a substantial amount.

I think this is probably relevant.

Adam Herman October 18, 2009 at 12:19 am

My theory is that although increases in poverty do not lead to increases in crime, increases in poverty or general economic malaise make people think there is more crime.

Iain October 20, 2009 at 7:33 am

This research fits so nicely into the theory of US Foreign Policy by Prof David Campbell in “Writing Security” as the performativity of the identity of the US that it must be mentioned.

Owing to a lack of foundational identity, the US must constantly reassert itself against the Other (the enemy)to assert its legitimacy and to give itself existence. Along with this, the weak idenity leads to a war within, an internalisation of threat, with a War on Communism, a War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Crime. No fight, then the US would not exist.

I do not do justice to his argument here, but it would follow that the 9/11 would be internalised into a fear of crime and a reaction to crackdown on crime.

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