Are Americans Wrong on Crime?

Police Helo


Who gets to define the reality of crime-criminologists or the American public?

Are American’s delusional as to fear?

Gallup-Americans’ direct experience with crime is at a 16-year high.


By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.

Thirty-five years of supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. Post Master’s degree-Johns Hopkins University.


I was an aid to Maryland’s Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (one of the finest politicians I have known) as she addressed a forum on crime. I was standing with reporters in the back of the room as she correctly stated that crime was down in the state. The reporters thought her statement was inappropriate. Their point was that people in Maryland thought that crime was a considerable problem. Citizen concerns shouldn’t be dismissed by stating that crime was down without a concurrent message addressing needed improvements.

Framing concerns about crime continue to challenge us today. Pew (below), many criminological and media commentators wonder aloud about the discrepancy between the reality of crime and people’s perceptions.

My question-who gets to define that reality?

I live on the Maryland-West Virginia line in a beautiful community named Alpine Lake. It’s full of people connected to life in D.C. as either retirees or people seeking a weekend retreat. It straddles the lowest crime counties in either state.

They did a survey of the most popular amenity. It’s the security force that checks all vehicles entering the complex. They patrol constantly. There is little to no crime compared to our previous home in central Maryland yet people want enhanced security.

Are my fellow residents delusional? Shall I bemoan their lack of connection to reality?

Urban planners understand that perceptions about crime can greatly hamper economic development.  I was born and raised in Baltimore and I will forever hold the city near to my heart, but the recent riot after the death of Freddie Grey marked Baltimore as a violent city. A month after the disturbance, I watched a fictional character on British television discussing crime in England making the statement, “Crime may be a concern, but it’s certainly not Baltimore.”

Crime is Down

Crime “is” down throughout the United States; it’s down by record numbers per the two principle Department of Justice (DOJ) reports, see, However, there is data from Gallup suggesting that crime is up.

Some suggest that we have never lived in safer times. While that statement is correct based on DOJ reports, I made the same declaration in public forums and have been met by blank stares of doubt. In one forum, I was accused of being out of touch with people and their suffering.

Again, who gets to decide what is reality when it comes to crime.

Per Gallup, fear of crime is at an all-time high. Gun purchases are soaring.

Facts and Perceptions Concurrently Correct 

Public discourse about pressing social problems is immensely difficult. If you write, if you speak, you are subject to criticism. You can say (as President Obama has said many times) that America has made great progress in race relations yet my African-American friends will say that we have a long-long way to go before we have full equality. Both statements are factually correct.

Experts will state that unemployment is down but millions of Americans have to work two jobs just to make ends meet. Both statements are factually correct. But if I declared that we have made immense progress as to race relations or employment without the caveat we have a long way to go on either point, I would be booed off the stage.

So why do criminologists wonder aloud about the discrepancy as if American’s are ungrateful for the progress? Why do some act as if Americans are wayward children for their obsession with crime?

So who’s reading the tea leaves incorrectly, the public or criminologists?

Some Considerations

Why are Americans so preoccupied with crime? Are they rational or delusional? Some additional items to consider:

Gallup-2014-The percentage of Americans who have been personally victimized has ranged from 14% to 19% (currently the highest measure of personal victimization since 2000). See

Gallup-2016-Americans’ direct experience with crime is at a 16-year high, consistent with a gradual increase — from 22% in 2001 to 29% today — in the percentage saying that they or a household member was the victim of a robbery, vandalism or violent crime in the past year. See

Gallup previously stated that if cyber crimes were included, the household victimization rate would surge to 46% (November, 2014). If half of households  state that they are victims of crime, then there is little wonder about the concern.

The data on fear of crime indicates that signs of disorder (litter, graffiti, kids hanging out) have more to do with trepidation than the numbers.

Crime is one of the top items of coverage (beyond sports and weather) by local news. Why?

National news (and social media) will cover a crime thousands of miles away yet it psychologically impacts many Americans.

Crime is a hot-button political topic. Cite violent crime often enough, it sticks because people are receptive to the perception that crime is a real problem in their communities or surrounding area.

Crime “is” going up in many (not all) cities throughout the country. We still have major media sources and criminologists insisting that it’s not.

The Ring Doorbell is experiencing explosive growth. “Ring provides a new level of security, by notifying you when someone is on your property and letting you see and speak with anyone at your front door. Imagine being home alone at night, and answering the door in complete safety and comfort.” If burglaries have plummeted, why is this product selling so well?

We all understand that the two measures of crime (FBI Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Survey) are undercounts. There are an endless number of issues (i.e., cyber crime, fear of crime) not measured. The National Crime Survey uses a six-month reference period. Crime surveys are at an added disadvantage because many of their questions involve particularly stigmatized or traumatic events that respondents may not want to discuss.

The Bottom Line

The bottom-line for many Americans is that they do not feel, taste, touch, or smell decreases in crime. Declines are not part of their perceptual reality.

We can argue all day long that the public “should” acknowledge improvements, just be ready for blank stares.

I can argue improvements in race relations and an improved economy endlessly while many people look at me as if I have three heads.

So I suggest that any measurement of crime be counterbalanced with data as to fear and similar measurements as to not insult wide swaths of the American public.

Anything less makes us look disconnected from the perceived realities of our fellow citizens.

Pew: Voters’ Perceptions of Crime Continue to Conflict with Reality

Despite double-digit percentage decreases in U.S. violent and property crime rates since 2008, most voters say crime has gotten worse during that span, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. The disconnect is nothing new, though: Americans’ perceptions of crime are often at odds with the data.

Leading up to Election Day, a majority (57%) of those who had voted or planned to vote said crime has gotten worse in this country since 2008. Almost eight-in-ten voters who supported President-elect Donald Trump (78%) said this, as did 37% of backers of Democrat Hillary Clinton. Just 5% of pro-Trump voters and a quarter of Clinton supporters said crime has gotten better since 2008, according to the survey of 3,788 adults conducted Oct. 25-Nov. 8.

Official government crime statistics paint a strikingly different picture. Between 2008 and 2015 (the most recent year for which data are available), U.S. violent crime and property crime rates fell 19% and 23%, respectively, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which tallies serious crimes reported to police in more than 18,000 jurisdictions around the nation.

Another Justice Department agency, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, produces its own annual crime report, based on a survey of more than 90,000 households that counts crimes that aren’t reported to police in addition to those that are. BJS data show that violent crime and property crime rates fell 26% and 22%, respectively, between 2008 and 2015 (again, the most recent year available).


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  1. […] I just wrote, “Are American’s Wrong about Crime?” in response to journalists and some criminologists suggesting that there was a disconnect between crime rates and perceptions or fear of crime, see Crime in America. […]

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