(WASHINGTON) — Crime, and the fear Americans have of it, has proven to be a popular talking point for election cycles and the 2022 midterm elections were no different.
It played a big role in New York, California, Illinois and more, as some Republican candidates claimed the state’s major cities were riddled with crime and headlines of violence fanned the flames, resulting in crime being one of the top concerns for U.S. voters ahead of the election, some major polling showed. (Exit polls showed inflation and abortion access were also top of mind.)
However, surveys show Americans are continuously bad at perceiving just how much crime is actually happening.
The Pew Research Center found that 61% of voters say violent crime was a key issue of importance when voting in this year’s congressional elections, despite reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show no significant increase in the U.S. violent crime rate. The crime rate — for both violent/property and overall offenses — has been at a steady decline since the crime peak of the 1990s, and remains much lower than that.
Pew found that Americans’ poor perception of crime has been seen in many elections before it: in 2020, 2016, and beyond.
An October Gallup poll found that a whopping 78% of respondents claimed there is now more crime in the U.S., which compares to the record high response in 1992 with 89% of respondents believing there was more crime that year, when crime rates were soaring.
“What people perceive as actually the risk, or the chances that they will suffer a crime is actually not very closely related to what the numbers reflect,” said Rafael Prieto Curiel, a researcher at the Complexity Science Hub Vienna.
He continued, “I can look at a neighborhood with high crime and people might not have high fear of that neighborhood. At a neighborhood level, some neighborhoods are perceived as insecure. But they are not the ones that suffer the highest amount of crime. There are cities that suffer a lot of crime, but they are perceived as secure and vice-versa.”
So, how bad is crime really in the largest U.S. cities?
New York City
Data from the New York Police Department paints a mixed portrait of crime in the city.
According to NYC CompStat data, murders and shootings in 2022 are down from 2021, but other crimes, including rape, robbery and burglary are up.
Compared to 2010, murder, robbery, burglary, misdemeanor assault, and shootings in the city are down. Other crimes, such as rape, felony assault and grand larceny, are up.
All major crimes, including murder, rape and robbery, are down compared to 2001.
All crimes are way down compared to what some call the peak of violence across the U.S. which occurred in 1993, with percent changes as high as -87.9% for grand larceny of a vehicle, and the lowest being -37.5% for felony assault, according to city CompStat data.
Misdemeanor offenses and the non-major felony offenses in NYC were at their lowest in two decades between 2020 and 2021. Data for 2022 is not yet available.
So far in 2022, shootings, murders and aggravated battery are down from this time last year, according to Chicago Police crime statistics.
Robbery, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft are up.
When calculating the year-to-date percent change, there is a 40% rise in major crimes from last year, and a 16% change from 2018.
In 2021, there were 84,316 crimes overall, which is down from 152,031 in 2010. It’s also down from 199,234 in 2001.
Comparatively, it’s way down from the 1990s, when it reached a peak of 323,944 incidents in 1991.
Crime, year to date, is 2.8% higher from 2021 to 2022 in Los Angeles, according to city police data. Homicide and rape is down, while property crimes, assault and robbery are up.
However, overall crime has remained relatively steady since 2010, according to LAPD crime data.
Crime and politics
Targeting voters through fear — whether it be crime or any other cause — can have a big impact on what voters focus on and how they vote, even if it’s not exactly representative of what’s happening, experts say.
“One implication of [Americans’ poor perception of crime] is the extent to which politicians and elites can prime voters to think about crime … and activate those fears, those perceptions, that can lead to some political benefit,” said Andrew Reeves, professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
For example, New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin’s focus on crime is believed to have helped lead him to an unexpectedly close race for the governor’s office, according to experts.
“There is rising crime on our streets and in our subways, and people who are in charge right now in Albany actually feel like they haven’t passed enough pro-criminal laws,” New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin said in a press conference.
Research has found that people often feel a sense of attachment toward their own community and value them as better and safer, while misinterpreting the security in other neighborhoods.
Experts who spoke to ABC News cited both politics and the gory headlines seen in media as to why this perception of crime may be skewed.
Reeves and Prieto Curiel said the fear of crime can lead to an increase in acquisition of guns, an increase in “othering” or fearing people from other communities where crime may be highlighted, a negative impact fear may have on businesses and their patrons, and more.
“This perception of crime is negative for the environment and negative for the people and it is used as a political weapon,” said Prieto Curiel. “The way to tackle crime is to make sure that crime and fear of crime have a very high correlation.”
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