“Crime in America keeps going down. Why does the public refuse to believe it?”
So runs the headline in Joe Keohane’s boston.com piece (below), in which he endeavors
to explain the public’s (i.e., our) weird refusal to accept the truth. He notes the impact of
what sociologists call “pessimistic bias,” and other academic explanations for “the high-
crime America that exists in our heads.”

Now, I’m entirely sympathetic to this line of argument as far as urban crime rates are
concerned, having myself done a study, back in 1997, of a similar paradox in Baltimore:
violent crime rates had been going down, and yet people–particularly in the suburbs
–were convinced that B’more was a war zone. That impression, we discovered,
had far less to do with any personal experience of crime than with one’s daily intake
of local TV news, which always led with crime reports. We commissioned a poll, which
found a direct correlation between your fearfulness and how much local TV “news”
you took in every day.

Such lurid and alarmist nightly “coverage” was determined not, of course, by journalistic
obligation but by sheer commercial logic: that scare-stuff was extremely good for ratings.
So here we had a lot of media corporations, based mostly out of town, exploiting their
TV stations in Baltimore (and elsewhere) for the sake of profit–and to the detriment of
that struggling city thus disserved. For that nightly barrage amounted to a sort of
inadvertent anti-urban propaganda, keeping people who lived in the suburbs out of
Baltimore, and driving many a commuter to get home as fast as possible.

For a rust-belt city with dire economic problems, such “news” just made a lousy situation
even worse; and so it was in many rusting cities nationwide. Such white flight (which is,
in fact, exactly what it was) hurt countless small businesses in Baltimore, and also
helped to keep potential homeowners from buying in the city, which would increase
the tax base there.

So, as I say, I’m sympathetic to the argument that Keohane’s making now; but I would
also note that, in this case, one reason why the public “refuse[s] to believe” that “crime
in America keeps going down” could be that it isn’t really going down. Here in New
York, where Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD have long hailed themselves for having
cut the crime rates back, over 100 retired NYPD officers recently came forward with
some troubling news: that “the intense pressure to produce annual crime reductions led
some supervisors and precinct commanders to manipulate crime statistics.” (See below)

So here’s a lesson we would all do well to learn: Before we start “explaining” why
the idiot public seems to cling to certain “misconceptions,” against all evidence, let’s
just make sure that they’re not right–i.e., not idiots at all–and that that “evidence”
is solid stuff, not propaganda.


Imaginary fiends
Crime in America keeps going down. Why does the public refuse to believe it?
By Joe Keohane | February 14, 2010

The year 2009 was a grim one for many Americans, but there was one pleasant surprise amid all the drear: Citizens, though ground down and nerve-racked by the recession, still somehow resisted the urge to rob and kill one another, and they resisted in impressive numbers. Across the country, FBI data show that crime last year fell to lows unseen since the 1960s – part of a long trend that has seen crime fall steeply in the United States since the mid-1990s.

At the same time, however, another change has taken place: a steady rise in the percentage of Americans who believe crime is getting worse. The vast majority of Americans – nearly three-quarters of the population – thought crime got worse in the United States in 2009, according to Gallup’s annual crime attitudes poll. That, too, is part of a running trend. As crime rates have dropped for the past decade, the public belief in worsening crime has steadily grown. The more lawful the country gets, the more lawless we imagine it to be.

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