A Commentary on Three Recent Publications: Part 3 of 3

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!  I hoped I’d be able to write this earlier but free time has been in short supply lately.  If you’re like me, just having some downtime is a big thing to be thankful for.  Anyway, with the turkey almost done and most of the other stuff finished, I’m sitting down to finally close out my three-part commentary.  So, to that end, I present a discussion of recent Gallup data on Americans’ perceptions of crime.  As a heads up, I’m writing this between tending to the kitchen so I apologize in advance for typos or other inconsistencies.


This recent Gallup publication caught my attention not only from a legal perspective but also from a psychological one too.  The article is a part of the annual Crime data that Gallup has been collecting since the early ‘70s.  As I first mentioned in an earlier post, they have recently released the 2010 data.  The poll aims to investigate what our perceptions of crime are both locally and nationally.  The web press release focuses on two variables: perceived crime rate and perceived crime severity.  Gallup also collects data on the respondent’s personal experience with being a victim of crime (e.g. “Please tell me which, if any, of these incidents have happened to you or your household within the last twelve months?”), which is an important thing to know in analysis; we might want to know if being a victim of crime makes one more likely to perceive crime as a problem.  Thus, I took it upon myself to dig deeper than what the web article displays and do my own analysis.  I downloaded their methodology report then copied and graphed the data tables provided for various questions asked.  I will first discuss their methodology, then discuss the local versus national distinction.  After that, I will turn to individual victim rates and what their impact may be, finishing with how this ties into my previous two articles on improving criminal justice.

Gallup’s Methods. This year, Gallup polled 1,025 adults (18 years or older) across the nation.  This polling was conducted by phone using random-digit dialing to ensure an un-biased sample.  Further, Gallup implemented a cell phone quota requiring that 150 respondents must be “cell phone only” and not have a landline.  I don’t know how they determined the exact ratio of cell phone to landline as it is not discussed in their methods report.  Nevertheless, the cell phone issue is a nice touch because many polls have been criticized for leaving out those who have gotten rid of their landline.  In fact, one of my family members has done this.  It certainly seems to be a growing trend and it’s becoming increasingly important to account for these people in a system that traditionally had not acknowledged them.

Two sample groups were taken based upon question rotation.  Put in plain English, half of the respondents were asked about local then national issues.  The second half were asked about national then local issues.  This way we can rule out or cancel out order effects.  Group A had a ±4 % margin of error at the 95CI, whereas Group B had a ±5 % margin of error.  Both are considered acceptable.

Gallup weights the results based on the typical demographic variables: gender, age, race, education, region, and type of phone they were polled on.  The only gripe I have is that they do not list n values for the previous years of the survey.  They only give summary statistics (in percentage of respondents), which makes what I can do with the data limited.

My Methods. Because all I have to work with are the frequency tables that Gallup provides, I couldn’t really dig into the regression models I’d hope to explore.  I was especially interested in examining crime perception as controlled by our personal experiences with crime.  In my own work, I have found this to be a somewhat less meaningful predictor variable than you might think.  Sadly, all I can do is take a look that what the descriptive data tell us.

Therefore, I copied the data tables provided by Gallup and graphed them using templates I used to employ when I was still doing psychological work.  A careful reader may note a couple things.  First, there is a lack of consistency in the‘90s with respect to data collection, which is why some of the years in that decade are not seen on this graph.  I do not specifically know if Gallup did not collect data in those years or if it simply chose not to provide the frequency responses.  Either way, the discontinuity in the earlier portion of the time series is attributable to Gallup, not me.  Second, I noted in tabulating the data Gallup provides that some of the years will have over or under 100% (always within ±1%) response when adding all of the categories together.  I double-checked my data entry and tried several times to figure out why this is but I cannot say for sure.  My best guess is simply sloppy rounding up or down.  Lastly a side note.  Some of the more artistic among us may not like the lack of color on these graphs.  That is intentional.  I was trained to avoid bias in every way possible and that includes color.  Using colors like red and green can convey subtle meanings, which I want to avoid doing.  I want the data and just the data.

Local v. National Crime Perception. Below I have displayed Figures 1 and 2.  Figure 1 shows how Americans perceive crime increase locally.  Specifically, this data shows a response to the question, “Is there more crime in your area than there was a year ago, or less?”  Four categories are measured for answers.  Respondents either answered more, less, same, or indicated that they did not have an opinion.  Figure 2 displays the same information but is responsive to the question, “Is there more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, or less?’  Figure 2 also indicates that Gallup collected this data in 1993 while the local crime rate perception was either not collected or not reported in their methodology.

Respondents' perceptions of local crime levels

Figure 1. Local Crime Perception

Respondents' perception of national crime rates

Figure 2. National Crime Perception

What we see first and foremost is the same general trend in both local and national assessments: from the early ‘90s to 2001, fewer and fewer people perceived crime as on the rise.  In 2001, the trend changed and more people started indicating crime is on the increase.  All of this is fairly intuitive.  The early ‘90s saw some of the highest crime rates our country has experienced so it only makes sense that people would pick up on that.  It’s also not so surprising to me that people would start perceiving crime as on the rise in 2001.  The September 11 attacks no doubt made all of us feel a bit less invulnerable and probably primed fear responses not previously active.

My issue with this data lies in the way Gallup has reported it.  Gallup was right to point out that actual crime rate levels are down all across the country … at least according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics (data than can be particularly problematic when applied and interpreted the wrong way).  However, Gallup suggests that respondents’ answers of perceiving more crime flies in the face of the reality (decreasing crime rates for the past several years).

I disagree.  First of all, both on a local and national level, fewer people perceived crime on the rise than last year (on the local level, that falls within the margin of error however).  It’s indicative that, on the aggregate level, people are starting to respond to reduced crime.  Nevertheless, it’s interesting that nearly 70% of people said crime is up nationally when compared with only 50% who felt it was up in their area.  My hypothesis is that this is the same effect we see when applied to politicians, “I hate Congress; I love my Congressman.”

Also noteworthy is the comparison of people who felt that crime was the same on the local and national levels.  On the local level, this response has stayed at just under 20% since 2004 whereas it has stayed under 10% on the national level excepting 2003 and 2004.  This shows some support for my earlier hypothesis.  People have more information about their area and can judge it a bit more accurately.  On a national level, most people have only the media to inform their beliefs.  With crime a consistent go-to topic for news outlets, it should come as no real surprise that people feel it is on the rise across the country.   Let’s look at a little bit more detail and see if we can’t pinpoint what is going on.

Respondents' perceptions of how serious local crime is.

Figure 3. Perceived Seriousness of Local Crime

Respondents' perceptions of how serious national crime is.

Figure 4. Perceived Seriousness of National Crime

Above, are Figures 3 and 4.  I have decided to provide these in color because things start to get too confusing without it.  These two graphs are illustrative of how serious respondents perceive crime to be on a local and national level.  This data was only available for the last decade (and in fact, 2001 and 2002 were not provided either) so unfortunately I cannot look back into the ‘90s.  Here, respondents were asked, “Overall, how would you describe the problem of crime in [the United States / the area where you live] – is it extremely serious, very serious, moderately serious, not too serious, or not serious at all?”  Figure 3 shows the results for local seriousness. Figure 4 shows results for national seriousness.  Also important to note, as the question wording above implies, these were counterbalanced so that half of people were asked about national seriousness first and the other half last.  That helps ensure that answers to one aren’t driven or influenced by the other.

What we notice here is that a decent portion of people thought crime wasn’t too serious or only moderately serious in their own area.  Indeed, more people thought crime was not serious locally than thought it was very or extremely serious.  On the national level, we see a distinctly different picture.  Here, people felt that the crime went from being moderately serious to very serious since 2009.  Both of those categories have remained well above the other ones (10 % or higher) since data collection began in 2000.  Also significant is that more people think that crime across the nation is “extremely serious” (just over 20%) than that it is not too serious or not serious at all.  Indeed, this trend has also been consistent since polling began.  Moreover, more people report having no opinion than believing crime is not serious nationally.

Again, I think this data may suggest that people are more in touch with their local area. Here’s what I mean.  Where are you most affected by crime?  Where you live or on some vague, national level?  No doubt, crime affects you where you live.  If we would expect one to be seen as more of a problem to you, would it not be the one that hits closest to home (quite literally)?  Of course.  Why then do people perceive crime as a more serious problem where it has a much less significant (if any) impact on their own day-to-day lives?  My proposed answer is that this data actually is showing a level of knowledge on the part of the respondent.  In your own area, you learn of crime not only through news outlets but from your own experiences, your conversations with co-workers, family, friends, and the like.  You have a range of instruments with which to estimate the crime situation.  On a national level, your information is more-or-less limited to what you can glean from the news.  And now we run into problems with how frequently you watch the news, what medium you consume (print, tv, online, radio, etc..),  so on and so forth.

Victim Rates. I think it’s also important to consider the data Gallup provides on victimization rates.  In particular, I have pulled out two variables that caught my attention.  The first measures personal or household experience with crime in the last year.  The second expands on that by examining the number of times the respondent or his/her household was a victim of crime.  The data are presented in Figures 5 and 6 below.

Respondents' personal experience with crime

Figure 5. Member of Household Victimized by Crime

Respondents' number of encounters with crime

Figure 6. Number of Times A Member of Household Has Been Victim of Crime

Figure 5 is an aggregation of positive responses to a variety of different crimes (e.g., being burglarized, being assaulted, etc…)  It demonstrates that the clear majority (around 75%) did not have any personal experience (measured as either to themselves or a household member) with crime in the last year.  It also shows that these trends have remained quite constant – far more so than people’s perceptions of crime.

Figure 6 expands on this by showing the number of times the respondent had personal experience with crime in the last year.  As we saw in Figure 5, the majority have none.  Of those that have any, around 15% had only one encounter and 10% had two ore more encounters with crime.  That these latter two numbers are so close (nearly within the margin of error) is suggestive to me that those are the respondents actually living in problematic areas.

I find this data interesting and I really wish I could cross-tabulate it against perception reports.  Yet, since I don’t have access to the raw data, I cannot do more analysis beyond what I have.  My suspicion is that those who have personal experience with crime tend to perceive crime as on the rise and as being more serious (a pretty uncontroversial hypothesis) but it calls into question those who have had no experience with crime.  These graphs show some of the most stable trends of all the data I’ve reviewed.  Logically speaking, it allows us to infer that actual victimization rates are much more stable than people believe them to be.  Admittedly, drug sales complicate this picture.  They are victimless yet very real crime that people may be aware of and report.  In general though, public perception of crime is not matching up with reality as both these two graphs and FBI statistics indicate.

Public Perception and Criminal Justice. Ultimately, I’m left wondering not only why this disparity exists but what its impact is on our criminal justice system.  I think information availability and diversity play a significant role in the perception process.  Few people are likely going to their police station to get crime data, fewer still are probably going to the FBIs website to see national trends.  Most of us are just busy people that briefly consume information when it happens to come our way.  Fair enough…but how will that affect our ability to improve criminal justice?

Perhaps not as badly as you might think.  Community involvement is repeatedly cited as a necessary element in crime prevention and deterrence.  The “it takes a village” approach has been tested with great success in a number of cities and it seems a promising way to help treat the root causes of crime.  Of course, this approach requires people to become engaged, which rarely happens when people don’t see something as a problem.  In a way, peoples’ misunderstanding of crime trends may be a blessing in disguise because it may motivate them to become proactive in helping reduce the issue.

This does not come without a drawback however.  Facilitating community involvement has to work in concert with traditional methods of criminal justice (e.g. policing, prosecuting, rehabilitating, etc…)  If local government is ready to embrace holistic approaches to crime deterrence then this misperception of the public could be helpful.  If the local government is only wanting more of the same (e.g. elect me; I’ll be tough on crime) then this public misperception is certainly to the detriment of everyone.  Voting for the “tough on crime’ candidate is the easy way out.  Beyond that, it rarely accomplishes the intended goal.  Too often, prosecutors and judges aim for appearing tough on crime rather than actually effecting justice, at great cost to everyone who is fed through the system.

I certainly have some uneasiness as an academic about the public lacking accurate data or, at the least, choosing not to seek it out.  I also have uneasiness that this lack of accurate info could be harnessed to merely promulgate the current trends rather than actively improve them.  However, I must admit there is a certain silver lining in all of this.  It might, just might get people proactively involved.  And if that occurs, we’re certainly on the road to a better place.

-Zachary Cloud

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