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Public Opinion and Crime - Fear Of Crime

united perceived risk question

Fear of crime is not a perception or opinion about crime, but rather an emotion, a feeling of apprehension or dread caused by an awareness or expectation of danger. Public fear of crime in the United States has been a topic of enormous interest to criminologists since the 1960s, in large part because of the ability of fear to significantly alter behavior (where people go, when they go, how they go, and who they go with, for example) and to regulate or disrupt social life (Skogan and Maxfield; Skogan; Warr, 1994; Ferraro). Although it is difficult to quantify and easy to exaggerate, some social observers see in widespread fear of crime a general decline in quality of life in the United States, one that manifests itself in restrictions on individual freedom, a loss of community, deserted and decayed inner cities, and numerous intangible casualties to fear (ranging from loss of trust among strangers to restricted outdoor play for children).

To some, the preoccupation of criminologists with fear of crime might seem to miss the true issue, which is not fear of crime, but crime itself. That point of view, however, overlooks certain crucial facts. One of those is that the number of fearful individuals in our society during any particular period greatly exceeds the number of persons who will actually become victims of crime, often by orders of magnitude. People can be victims of fear, in other words, even when they are not actually victims of crime. Another important consideration is that public fear of crime is not necessarily proportional to objective risk. In fact, there is reason to believe that people often exaggerate the risk of rare, but serious, crimes (Warr, 2000). In American culture, where the everyday sensibilities of citizens are often acutely alert to danger, fear of crime merits attention as an object of study in its own right.

Fear of crime is ordinarily measured through social surveys, and the survey question most frequently used to measure fear of crime in the United States is this: "Is there any area near where you live—that is, within a mile—where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?" Since 1965, the question has been routinely included in surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization and (with minor wording differences) by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC). Following a modest rise in the late 1960s, the percentage of respondents answering "yes" to the question has remained relatively constant since that time, varying over a range of only about 10 percent (from approximately 40 to 50 percent). This relative invariance over time may surprise those who are accustomed to frequent media claims about "skyrocketing" fear in the United States.

The survey question used in the Gallup/NORC surveys is useful as a general barometer of fear in the United States, but it obscures the fact that different crimes are feared to very different degrees. One of the most enduring but mistaken assumptions about fear of crime is that the general public is most afraid of violent crimes, especially homicide. Homicide, however, is not among the most highly feared crimes in the United States, and the most feared crime—residential burglary when no one is home—is not even a violent crime. Why this seemingly strange state of affairs? The reason is that fear is not simply determined by the perceived seriousness of a crime, but by the interaction of perceived seriousness and perceived risk. To generate strong fear, an offense must be perceived to be both serious and likely. Americans do not greatly fear homicide because they regard it as a comparatively low-risk event, and they reserve their concern for a crime that is less serious (though hardly trivial) but far more likely—residential burglary (Warr and Stafford, 1983; Warr, 1994, 1995).

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