What Factors Affect the Perception of Crime?

Jacob Queen

The public perception of crime can potentially be very different from reality, and there are many factors which play a role in creating this disparity. Sometimes the news media has a tendency to focus on negative stories, including various criminal occurrences, and this is often blamed as a key factor in changing public perception. Other things that can make an impact include the specifics of the crimes being committed, and the location where crimes are occurring. Politicians can sometimes change the public perception of crime as well, depending on the kind of rhetoric they use when campaigning.

Individuals who perceive an increase in crime may choose to receive firearms training.
Individuals who perceive an increase in crime may choose to receive firearms training.

It is fairly common for polling groups to look at public opinion regarding crime rates for a variety of reasons, and these studies often show a big disparity when compared to real crime statistics. Often people believe that crime in their living area is worse than it actually is, even during times when crime rates are falling. Public perception of crime can very often have little to do with the actual crime statistics at all, and many experts believe that other factors play a much more pivotal role than the actual number of crimes in determining how people feel.

The news media often gets a lot of blame for the difference between the perception of crime and the reality. Journalists can sometimes have a tendency to focus on negative news, and they may not give quite as much attention to more positive stories. For example, news stories about crime rates dropping will usually only get a passing mention, while a single story about a crime occurring might monopolize the headlines for days or weeks depending on the nature of the crime and the interest of the public.

Another factor that can make an impact on the perception of crime is the location where crimes are occurring. People naturally tend to feel more greatly endangered when a crime happens closer to them, and people who live in areas with lower crime rates may suffer an especially serious shock if something happens close to their homes. A single crime in the right location can totally change the public perception in that area even if it isn't statistically significant when looked at on a broader scale.

The specific nature of a criminal act can also totally change the public perception of crime. In many cases, the biggest headline crime stories have a lot of natural drama and shock value. These sorts of stories can sometimes frighten people, and over time, they can potentially make individuals feel that crime is on the rise even if it isn't.

Politicians frequently rely on the sensational nature of crime to drive people to the polls. They often do this by emphasizing crime in their rhetoric to attack a political opponent's record on criminal justice. Some experts believe that this sort of rhetoric can potentially make a significant number of people believe that crime is worse than it actually is. If people begin to believe that law enforcement isn't doing a good job, they might start to develop an overall belief that crime is out of control even if they aren't seeing any actual crime in their own environment.

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Discussion Comments


One good example of this is the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida. There were people howling about this case on both sides of the issue. Some said Martin was a punk who was looking for trouble. Others said George Zimmerman was a wanna-be hero, looking for attention. As with most such stories, the truth is almost certainly somewhere in between.

While I wouldn't rule out Martin having been in trouble, or even looking for trouble at some point, one fact is that Zimmerman should have stayed in his car, per the 911 dispatcher's orders. But that's just one person's opinion. Others would probably vehemently disagree with me.

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