Americans are freaked out about crime in the United States. As many as eight in 10 say it’s a major problem. They rank it ahead of health care and poverty, perennial priorities. Solid majorities believe that crime is worse today than it was 30 years ago, which is not even close to true, despite record increases in homicides in 2020.
This fear about crime has potentially large implications. President Joe Biden, eager to show that the White House is paying attention, launched a series of crime-fighting initiatives focused on guns last month. Republicans have sought to tie Democratic support for cutting police budgets to the rise in crime, and local and congressional efforts at police reform could all be shaped by the public’s views on crime.
But ask Americans how things look in their own communities, and in survey after survey, they evince much less worry. In a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Americans believed (correctly) that crime had gotten worse in the United States, but a plurality felt that their own community was no more dangerous, closely paralleling the results of a Navigator poll. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 59 percent saw crime as a serious problem nationally, but only 17 percent felt the same way about their own area. This split is not new, but it may be widening. In November, Gallup recorded the largest difference ever: 78 percent of Americans said crime was rising year over year nationwide, but only 38 percent said it was up in their area.
Americans are onto something. “Violent crime in particular is hugely concentrated,” Wesley G. Skogan, a political scientist at Northwestern University, wrote to me in an email. “Unlike Lake Wobegone, almost all neighborhoods are below average.”
The divergent views of crime locally and nationally produce two divergent possibilities for fighting the increase in violence. Politicians could take worries about national crime as a cue to pursue blunt and simplistic answers of the past, including stricter sentencing and over-policing. But the nuanced views among the public suggest that policy makers have the flexibility to devise locally appropriate strategies for crime.
Some crime trends do move nationally: From the 1970s to the 1990s, crime surged nationwide, followed by a marked decrease. At the peak, in 1991, there were almost 10 murders per 100,000 people. By 2014, that had dropped to 4.4 per 100,000. In 2020, murders surged in most American cities, producing the largest increase in murder rate on record, at an estimated 6.6 per 100,000. Understanding the broad trends is important, but most crime-fighting is local, and the federal government has little role. Or as Skogan put it, “What the heck is ‘crime in the nation’?”
Opinion polls have long shown that Americans overestimate the level of crime in the country, as the Pew Research Center’s John Gramlich has written. Even amid a historic decline in crime rates, majorities in surveys said they believed that crime was on the rise. Much of the blame for this misperception likely falls on the press. The media tend to follow the maxim “If it bleeds, it leads”—violence tends to earn coverage. Criminologists say that this is especially true of television journalism.
“Citizens have only the mass media to rely on for information about the national crime picture, and that information is often alarmist, sensationalistic, and decontextualized,” Mark Warr, a sociologist who has studied the perception of crime, wrote in an email. “So crime nationally often looks much worse than it is.” But even as Americans fret about national crime rates, they see the situation in their home community as largely stable. Scholars believe that citizens are aware enough to tell what’s really going on around them, despite especially crime-focused local news coverage.
Politicians are happy to appeal to misperceptions about crime nationally. During his 2016 campaign, at a time of remarkable calm, Donald Trump warned of carnage in the streets, calculating that it would resonate with voters. Older, white Americans are both least likely to be victims of crimes and also most likely to believe that they are at risk. The belief that crime is much more prevalent and more dangerous than it is can manifest in demands for “tough-on-crime” policies, many of which aren’t demonstrably effective at reducing crime but do have major drawbacks, including racially disparate enforcement and mass incarceration.
The misperception is “hugely consequential,” says Gary LaFree, the chair of the criminology and criminal-justice department at the University of Maryland. “The political impact is substantial. Going all the way back to when Barry Goldwater first started weaponizing crime as a national issue, it’s been part of the national discussion on a political level.”
Now, however, violent crime really is on the rise nationally, although the increase isn’t as dramatic as many people think: 57 percent of respondents in the USA Today/Ipsos poll believed that the current situation is worse than 30 years ago, which is decidedly not the case. Furthermore, some categories of crime have not grown. Rates for many offenses, such as home break-ins, actually fell in 2020, likely as a result of the pandemic.
The impulse to worry about the picture nationwide is understandable. “Violence matters to people. You don’t have to be very close to it for it to worry you,” says Lisa L. Miller, a political scientist at Rutgers University. “Violence is a first-order political problem. If there’s one thing the state’s supposed to do, it’s protect us from internal and external threats.”
Yet thinking about crime in your own area is probably more useful than contemplating national crime rates. That’s not only because a national crime rate is a fuzzy metric, sweeping in all sorts of offenses and flattening divergent vectors in different communities into one large trend. Besides, the United States has decided that crime is a local issue, overseen by some 18,000 different police departments around the country, rather than a national force, as in some other countries. Biden has few levers to pull to affect crime, because law enforcement isn’t primarily a federal issue.
Fear drives bad policy, especially overblown fear. In the case of crime, it pushes toward harsh punishments and more incarceration, even though the evidence that these tactics deter crime is limited. When crime scares you but isn’t in your neighborhood, supporting drastic measures is much easier. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in recent memory are a reminder of the need for improved policing in many parts of the country. So far, polling offers some reasons for cautious optimism. Majorities tend to support more funding for police, but they also recognize the need for broader and nonpunitive strategies. Targeted solutions to crime, which require local knowledge, are more likely to work than anything the federal or state government can do.