Donald Trump recently falsely stated that the murder rate “is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” Scholars of crime have been energetic in countering this claim with evidence that the violent crime in the U.S. peaked in the early 1990s and has steadily declined since. Although recent data suggests murder has increased in certain cities, Trump’s characterization of the murder rate is way off. But the sentiment behind his statement in some ways reflects a fearful popular discourse about crime rates and “tough on crime” public policies.
Even after accounting for other relevant factors, people in neighborhoods with higher crime rates are slightly more fearful about crime. While crime fears also vary along demographic lines and victimization experiences, scholars have emphasized the robust effects of social environment as drivers of crime fears. Collective efficacy — the perceived social cohesion of a neighborhood and the willingness of neighbors to intervene on others’ behalf — is a strong predictor of lower crime fears, whereas the perceived level of disorder (e.g. vandalism) is associated with greater fear.
- Chris L. Gibson, Jihong Zhao, Nicholas P. Lovrich, and Michael J. Gaffney. 2002. “Social Integration, Individual Perceptions of Collective Efficacy, and Fear of Crime in Three Cities.” Justice Quarterly, 19: 537-564.
- Jihong Zhao, Brian Lawton, and Dennis Longmire. 2015. “An Examination of the Micro-Level Crime–Fear of Crime Link.” Crime & Delinquency 61(1): 19-44.
Scholars have noted that popular discourse around crime has revolved around talk of “random violence,” which deemphasizes patterns of crime and victimization and focuses on the claim that everyone is equally at risk. This rhetoric maximizes public concern and favors policy strategies that include individual law enforcement tactics (“tough on crime”) as opposed to changes in structural conditions (e.g. neighborhood dynamics, class) that are correlated to crime and victimization.
- Joel Best. 1999. Random Violence: How We Talk about New Crimes and New Victims. University of California Press.
Research on the relationship between fear of crime and the emergence of “get tough on crime” policies explores whether the origins of the punitive turn in crime control resulted from the general public’s fear of crime rates or political strategies that influence the public’s perceptions of crime. Some scholars have found that, in combination with increased media coverage, political initiatives surrounding crime (and not actual crime rates) fostered increasing public concern about crime and drugs during the 1960s and 80s.
- Katherine Beckett. 1999. Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. Oxford University Press.
Others have recently challenged this notion, arguing that punitive public sentiment is what motivated policymakers to develop tough on crime policies. Regardless of this “chicken and egg” dilemma, crime issues developed into a key political strategy. This “governing through crime” expands racial divisions rather than increasing security for American citizens. The concentration of mass incarceration in impoverished minority communities is evidence enough that crime as a political strategy has important repercussions for American notions of equality and liberty for all.
- Peter K Enns. 2016. Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Cambridge University Press.
- Jonathan Simon. 2007. Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Oxford University Press.