A recent poll from Pew Research Center found nearly 60 percent of voters believed crime rates had increased in the United States since 2008.
“The general reality, while crime has steadily dropped, people have consistently thought crime is going up even just year to year,” Fordham University School of Law Professor of Law John Pfaff said.
The reality is violent crime rates have fallen nearly 20 percent in that time frame, and even with a rise in crime in 2015, the violent crime rate in the United States remains lower than it was just three years earlier, according to the FBI.
Multiple times during his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump claimed murder rates in the United States are at a 45-year high – a statement divorced from reality.
The murder rate in the United States in 2015 – the latest full-year of data available – was not even at a 10-year high, according the FBI.
The murder rate in United States in 2015 was 4.9 per 100,000 people, according to the FBI. This is less than half the murder rate in 1980.
In fact, the murder rate in 2014 of 4.4 per 100,000 was a historic low, according to the FBI – whose data goes back to 1960.
Overall, crime rose sharply in the 1980s and has fallen significantly since the 1990s.
So, why do a majority of voters still believe crime levels are higher than they really are?
“In some ways the crime drop has been a victim of its own success,” Pfaff said. “Far fewer people experience crime on day-to-day basis, so they get it from the news and things appear far worse than they really are.
“There’s always enough crime to keep the local nightly news leading with something that bleeds,” he said.
Pfaff said this has led people to believe crime is more frequent than it is and remains unchecked because of lack of personal experience with crime.
“I went to college in the South Side of Chicago in the early 1990s, and you could feel things get safer while I was there,” Pfaff said. “So, even if the nightly news started with some horrible crime, my own perceptions were things were getting safer every month on campus.
“That’s not true anymore,” he added. “Things are so low that people don’t have that experience.”
Crime and perception
As crime rates began to drop in the 1990s, so did the percentage of people who believed crime was getting worse.
In 1993 – around the beginning of the crime rate drop – roughly 87 percent of people believed crime was rising, Pfaff said, citing research by Gallup.
By 1998, that number had dropped to 54 percent, he said, and in 2001, the percentage of people who believed crime rates were increasing dropped below 50 percent for the first and only time since the early 1990s.
That number jumped to more than 60 percent in 2002 and has remained around that point since, Pfaff said.
“I’ve never seen anyone actually test this, but it certainly seems like the attacks of 2001 just created a general ambient sense of fear for people to be more scared,” he said. “The ‘90s were kind of a time that things were going pretty well. You had the dot-com boom, crime was dropping. ... In general, the ‘90s felt like things were going fairly well, and then 2001 hit and general sense of fear took over.”
Violent crime victimization in Cumberland County happens, but it is rare.
There were 48 reported aggravated assaults in the county in 2015, according to Pennsylvania State Police. This equates to roughly 20 assaults per 100,000 people.
For comparison, the aggravated assault rate nationally was 237 assaults per 100,000 people in 2015, according to the FBI.
DUIs accounted for nearly 30 percent of criminal charges in the county in 2015, according to Cumberland County Insight. Drug crimes accounted for about 24 percent of criminal charges and less than 1 percent of all cases included both a drug crime and a violent offense, according to court records.
As for the more serious violent crimes, sexual offenses accounted for less than 2 percent of all criminal cases in 2015, aggravated assault was charged in 1.4 percent of the cases and only 1.2 percent of all cases included a robbery charge, according to Cumberland County Insight.
“I think we need to think a lot about how we tell this crime story in a way that doesn’t sell the scary ‘It’s always getting worse narrative’ or in a way that isn’t just dry numbers that is going to engage people,” Pfaff said. “There has to be a way to tell that this is how crime is moving that sort of gets beyond our inherent fear. ... We haven’t done that yet. I think that’s something that needs to be worked on, a lot.”