Fear Mongering in an Age of Historically Low Crime Levels

Fear Mongering in an Age of Historically Low Crime Levels

I have a bold statement for you: Crime in the USA is at the lowest levels since the 1970’s.

This is much more of an editorial approach than I typically try to take. But, I have been watching in this year of 2016 the presidential election run up with the candidates, the news, the outrageous claims, the soundbites, an the debates.  One particular thing that has stood out to me is the unmitigated levels of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) being used to bolster the candidates and their positions. It is one of the weakest rhetorical devices available –  yet unfortunately terribly effective because it speaks to various subconscious prejudices which we all carry.

I’ve written previously how some of these ideas such as voter ID laws or immigration have such a mind share in public opinion, and yet the facts related to these topics do not necessarily support the actions being taken. Some things just seem so reasonable, yet they are not actually based in the reality that data and science actually prove.

What each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him… because the pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside. — Walter Lippman, 1922

Thinking about this idea of perception vs reality I consider a number of politically volatile topics.

Abortion continues to be a very hot topic after decades of focus in politics. The existence and funding for organizations such as Planned Parenthood  continue to be a rallying point of contention. But, the reality is something everyone on all sides is thankful for – abortion rates are falling. The per capita rates peaked in 1984 at 6.69 per thousand and have been falling ever since with the 2011 rates down to 3.38 per thousand. According to the CDC the peak year saw 1,429,247 abortions,  it is down to 699,202 for the year of 2012. Still a shocking number, but how often do we hear of this decline?

Contrary to popular thought fewer police annually are being killed now than during Reagan, and are safer in their job than many mundane jobs. Similarly there is a perception that teen pregnancy has been on the rise, but actually teen pregnancy rates are down by 42% since 1990. It is safer to be a child in America now than in decades despite the constant fears parents have.

Then I started thinking about a topic that has actually been mentioned directly by some politicians this year.

Crime –
Perceptions of Crime

Predictably, I guess, after the last two examples the “perception” of crime is that it is on the increasing with 70% of people “thinking” it is rising in the USA. This data continues with an April 2016 Gallup Poll which shows that 53% of Americans worry a great deal about crime and violence. This level of concern is up from 43% about a year earlier and at it’s highest point since 2001.

According to the FBI Unified Report for 2015 crime actually was up 1.7% from the previous year. Despite this little uptick last year – it still represents nearly the lowest point in 45 years. The reality is crime has been so steeply on the decline that violent crime is now at per-capita rates which are lower than it was in 1970.

The state of crime in America is exactly one of these areas in which it appears a majority of Americans have a cognitive disconnect in terms of “feelings” and facts. According to the Wikipedia article on the issue of crime in America there was on a sharp rise during much of the last half of the 20th century. Violent crime nearly quadrupled between 1960 and 1991, but has been steadily trending down.

What is important about is real data vs our perceptions – is how we act upon it.

Property Crime Rates

Property crime rates in the United States per 100,000 population beginning in 1960. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

We shouldn’t let perceptions and fears rule how we react. We can’t let ourselves be scared politically into choices that will harm us both nationally and individually. We need to take care to not trample the civil rights of others with inadvertently falsely motivated self protective laws.

We need to hold accountable law makers at the local, state, and federal levels; and not allow them to weaken our Constitutional Rights using such fear as a justification.

The ever looming specter of “terror” has repeatedly been used since September 11th to unprecedentedly increase the size of the government, and encroach greatly on the constitutional and legal rights of Americans. (Feel free to read the patriot act and associated laws passed by congress, signed by Bush and largely rubber stamped by President Obama since)

We should take care when as a country we allow fear to justify our law enforcement agencies arming themselves with military hardware, or spy agency technologies being leveraged inward against citizens without warrant as exposed by Snowden, and a number of other whistle blowers. Where our laws meant to protect this very action are set aside and those risking everything are instead pursued by the government as criminals for pointing out criminal behavior.

We are seeing the rise of a new civil rights era with the progress toward parity gender identity and sexual orientation fronts. We are seeing with the campaign of Hillary Clinton and her opponent Donald Trump gender discrimination questions being brought to the forefront. Speaking with some significant hyperbole – we teeter on the brink of unprecedented equality for all minorities, or repression on a scale the world hasn’t seen since the political change most similar to the period prior to World War II.

We should take special note of those who run for office using rhetoric leveraging such fears. It shows either they are blatantly and purposely dishonest, or misinformed. Neither is a quality to recommend in someone trying to be a leader of the this country nor any of its people.

Election day is minutes away as I write these thoughts, and I am curious to see how my fellow country men respond at the ballot box in the end. Will they be driven by fear and demagoguery, or by reasoned arguments and a candidate with more political experience than anyone who has ever run for the office of President of the United States.