Crime has been steadily decreasing since the 90s, but Americans haven’t gotten the message. A new study by Chapman University says that Americans believe crime has remained steady over the past 20 years, and that several types of crime are even on the rise.
“When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who facilitated the survey’s crime research and analysis. “Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”
The study asked about child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killings and sexual assaults. A vast majority of respondents believed all of these crimes had at least remained steady over the past 20 years, and most believed the crimes had increased. The only two exceptions were mass riots and serial killing, which respondents said remained steady but did not increase.
Despite what respondents believe, violent crime has actually been plummeting since the 90s:
Even school shooting deaths are down — an observation that may seem surprising, given heavy media focus on recent events of that kind. Check out the chart below from the Crime Prevention Research Center, which shows that firearm deaths on school campuses have been trending down for years. You’ll notice a large spike in 2012-2013 from Sandy Hook, but the overall trend is nonetheless downward.
Sexual assault — which about 60 percent of Americans believe is on the rise — has actually dropped 60 percent since 1995. Child abductions also dropped by more than half between 2000 and 2007, despite 57 percent of people saying they were going up. Incidents of child sexual abuse also fell about 60 percent between 1992 and 2010, even though 63 percent of Americans think pedophilia is on the rise.
Gang violence seems to have remained one of the most resilient over the last two decades, but hasn’t risen. Of all the crimes surveyed, the only one that actually might be going up is human trafficking. I say “might” because the only figure that’s really available for this is the number of calls placed to the Polaris Project, which is not a perfect indicator of how frequent human trafficking actually occurs. The upward trend could easily be due to wider knowledge of the tip line. As any human trafficking website will tell you, tracking the crime is pretty difficult given its nature.
So what would make the crime go away, in the eyes of these respondents? In every instance about 80 percent of people thought crime would go down if the following things happened:
About 70 percent of people thought crime would go down if there were less violence in the media.
While I’m sure all of that is valid — as in, I’m sure crime would go down if all of these things were true — it’s concerning that people aren’t more confident in a system that’s actually worked in the last 20 years. It would be easy to fault the people who participated in this study and call them uninformed, but whose fault is that really? People who listen to the news daily would probably offer similar answers.
The real fault here lies with the news media, which does a terrible job contextualizing crime and offering meaningful analysis of what works (and what doesn’t work) in crime prevention. The coverage of Friday’s school shooting in Washington, for instance, is already predictable. The news will flock, and call the shooting a tragedy before calling for reform. They won’t talk in detail about the specific type of reform, or what reform has worked elsewhere in any meaningful way that will translate to actual public policy. Instead, they’ll push blind change with scary graphics and meaningless statistics in order to scare you into watching more news.
This survey isn’t just an indication of how uninformed America’s public is — it’s an indication of how the news is failing. And as someone who is theoretically involved in the news, it makes me incredibly angry. The media should take this survey as a sign that some self reflection is in order.