News and Comment

Overcoming the crime perception gap

Thursday 1 August 2013

Overcoming the crime ‘perception gap’

The discrepancy between crime statistics and the public’s perception of them has important implications for local authorities and the communities they serve.

There’s a popular weather website I’ve consulted a great deal recently to check the extent of the soaring temperatures. It says things like “Sunny, 27 degrees, feels like 24 degrees”, which is curious, as you might expect it to feel as warm or cool as it actually is, but you’d be wrong.

I was reminded of this gap between the real and the perceived when I saw the latest Crime Survey for England and Wales showing a 9 percent fall in crime last year, whilst at the same time a recent poll for the Royal Statistical Society and Kings College London showed that 58 percent of people do not believe crime is falling.

As a phenomenon this is not a new. Crime has now fallen every year since 1995 and the latest figures show levels at their lowest since the survey began in 1981. Yet at the same time perception of crime has remained high. It was 10 years ago when the Home Office pronounced that “in spite of the significant falls in the main volume crimes in recent years, almost three-quarters of the public still believe that the national crime rate has been rising”; and little has happened since that time to prove the statement outdated.

Numerous theories exist as to why we consistently over-estimate the prevalence of crime, but given that overestimation does happen, local authorities need to seriously consider the consequences that it has in their communities.

It isn’t sufficient to dismiss the public’s concerns about rising or persistently high crime rates as simply ‘unfounded’. Although statistics tell us that those who feel crime is rising do so on the basis of false assumptions, the effect which people’s perceptions have – false or not – can be very real. Someone who feels that the area where they live is becoming more dangerous is likely to behave differently than someone who does not. The steps they take may be prudent, but they could easily become inhibitive and have a detrimental impact on their life, their relationship with other residents and their role in the wider community.

There is also a danger of prioritising national statistics over local and personal experience. Clearly a reduction in crime is not the same as eradication, and successes achieved in some areas will not be repeated in others. The HMIC for instance has found that there is a greater variation in the recording of anti-social behaviour incidents across regions than there is in ‘notifiable’ offences. And the section of the Crime Survey dedicated to young people showed that 10-15 year olds are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than adults are. As ever the picture is more nuanced than is often painted.

While keeping residents safe has to be a top priority for any local authority, reassuring residents so that they feel safe (which isn’t necessarily the same thing) is also vitally important. One way of doing this is to try and present the facts about crime in a way that is less opaque. By displaying statistics interactively and easily intelligibly, initiatives like crime maps help to increase public trust in the facts.

Another important approach is establishing as much openness, visibility and familiarity as possible between those working to reduce crime and local people. National Policing Improvement Agency research has shown that sharinginformation with the public about policing improves people’s perceptions of their neighbourhood. We’ve also seen in our own work that actions which councils can take to tackle ‘low level’ crime – such as graffiti, vandalism or abandoned cars – can have a big impact on making citizens feel safer and more positive about crime levels in their areas.

We do, however, need to ask how closely we can ever expect public perception of crime to be accurately aligned with the reality, and perhaps accept that where will always be a ‘perception gap’. The Royal Statistical Society andKingsCollegeresearch showed that it isn’t just crime where the public overestimates; the same can be also said of the incidence of teenage pregnancy, immigration and many other social issues. The fact is that statistics alone are no match for the media stories, anecdotes or indeed personal experiences which may compound to tell us that crime is as much if not more of a problem as ever. A crime is an event, after all, with victims and perpetrators, and a narrative we remember – where as ‘no crime’ is invisible. It’s not an easy challenge to overcome, but if local authorities and their partners can continue to find localised and transparent ways of communicating the counter-narrative – rather than relying on the data to speak for itself – then it’ll at least be a step in the right direction.