Crime Statistics, Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
Chances are you’re going to attend at least one holiday celebration this month. As family and friends gather to share food and drink, the “good old days” are almost guaranteed to become a topic of conversation. Many of us hold the conviction that life was simpler, safer, and better in years past.
But criminal justice professionals think otherwise. We know, from press releases issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that overall crime rates—both violent and nonviolent—have been dropping for decades. According to the latest FBI statistics, violent crime generally reached a 40-year low in 2009. (There are exceptions in some cities and some areas of the Northeast.)
More good news came from the Department of Health and Human Services, which released statistics showing that child sex abuse is down 55 percent from its 1992 peak.
Mention these crime statistics as you’re pouring eggnog or carving the holiday turkey, and you’ll probably be met with disbelief. The “paradise lost” mentality we carry in our souls simply does not want to admit that life has gotten better—especially in light of recent economic problems and rising poverty rates.
What’s going on? Even criminal justice experts disagree about why crime is dropping. What’s certain, though, is that there are important implications for law enforcement.
First, we need to recognize that some citizens use the myth of rising crime as an excuse for their own violent behavior. Irrationally fearful and heavily armed, they espouse a “shoot first and ask questions later” philosophy that can put themselves, their families, their neighborhoods and—not incidentally—local law-enforcement personnel in danger.
Belief in a largely imaginary criminal element out there can also blind citizens to the dangers closer to home—literally. For example, many parents worry endlessly about kidnappers who may be lurking in shopping malls and playgrounds—forgetting that the risk of sexual assault by a relative or family friend is a much greater danger.
Similarly, many people believe that domestic violence is a normal part of a relationship and, therefore, nothing to be concerned about. Whatever spouses and parents do (even if it looks outrageous to an outsider) is good and normal.
In this worldview, the only people we have to worry about are strangers. The consequences are familiar to every officer: Endless emergency room visits and workplace disruptions, and emotionally scarred children who may repeat the same violent behavior in their own relationships later on.
Most seriously, widespread hopelessness about imagined increases in crime can lead to budget cuts to agencies that are experiencing wide success in protecting citizens and their property. Misconceptions about rising crime rates rob both officers and their agencies of credit for their hard work and professionalism.
The good news about modern law enforcement deserves wider circulation. Press releases, open houses, public forums, and media interviews are some of the ways that agencies can broadcast their successes—and ensure that the good news continues in these hard economic times.
You can learn more about FBI crime data at this link: http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2011/may/crimes_052311/crime_052311