Fear of Crime: Where You Live Matters, But So What?

Fear of crime obviously contributes a great deal to penal politics, but our knowledge of what drives crime fears is quite limited.  It would be good to know, for instance, to what extent crime fears are “rational” and to what extent they are a product of misperceptions.  It would also be good to know the sources of misperceptions and the extent to which they can be remedied.

An interesting new article by Ian Brunton-Smith and Patrick Sturgis fills in some of the gaps, but still leaves many questions unanswered.  Their principal interest was in determining the effect of neighborhood of residence on fear.  They used survey and demographic data from England and Wales, crunching the numbers in a variety of ways to try to isolate the effects of several different variables.  Their analysis “shows that fear is significantly higher among women, people with poor health, those identified as more socioeconomically disadvantaged, those with recent experience of household or personal victimization (repeat victims are identified as even more fearful of crime), and readers of newspapers that devote a larger proportion of space to the reporting of violent crimes (348-50).”  (The latter result, on tabloid readers, is certainly suggestive of one source of irrationality in crime perceptions.)

These sorts of individual-level variables explained more than 80 percent of the variation in fear, with geographic variables accounting for only about 8 percent.  Still, even if in a limited way, the data do support the hypothesis that where you live matters.

Brunton-Smith and Sturgis then tried to figure out why and how geography matters, particularly at the neighborhood level.  They found statistically significant correlations between fear and three separate types of neighborhood-level variables.

First, fear is correlated with neighborhood-level crime rates.  Chalk up one point for rationality: people who live in high-crime neighborhoods are (rationally) more fearful of being victimized by crime.

Second, fear is also correlated with several variables indicating neighborhood-level social disorganization, “with greater levels of fear expressed by people living in more ethnically diverse, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and urban neighborhoods. Also, fear is greater in areas with a younger neighborhood age structure and more population mobility, although these effects are considerably weaker (352).”  This may be suggestive of some irrationality.  Just because I live in a neighborhood with, say, more poor people or more ethnic diversity should not make me think my chances of being victimized are greater when they are not.  On the other hand, it might be that the effects of victimization are more severe in a socially disorganized neighborhood.  If I live in an affluent, ethnically homogenous neighborhood, perhaps I can more realistically count on my neighbors to rally behind me if I am robbed or my home is burgled than if I live in a different sort of community.  If that’s so, then maybe it is rational for fear of crime to be higher in more disorganized neighborhoods, even holding actual crime rates constant.

The final neighborhood-level variable, visible signs of disorder, is the one that may get the most attention from policymakers, for it seems to relate to the ongoing controversy over “broken windows” policing.  Here’s how the variable was measured: “For each sampled address, interviewers were instructed to rate how common litter, vandalism (including graffiti), and run-down property are within the area (measured on a four-point Likert-type scale from 1 = “not at all common” to 4 = “very common”) (344).”  Visible signs of disorder correlated about as closely with fear as did the actual reported incidence of crime.

Does this support broken windows policing — the idea of using law-enforcement resources aggressively against low-level, high-visibility malfeasance like littering and spray-painting graffiti?  I suppose the argument might go like this: visible signs of disorder seem to exacerbate public fears of crime, so eradicating them might enhance individuals’ sense of security, and ultimately their quality of life — perhaps even as much as major reductions in real crime would.

I think, though, that it would be hard to use the British data to justify broken windows policing here (even assuming the data would be the same in the U.S.).  For one thing, the big picture must be borne in mind: fear is mostly a function of individual-level variables (like whether you read those crime-obsessed tabloids); neighborhood-level variables account for only about 4 percent of the variation in fear, and signs of disorder seem to be only one aspect the neighborhood-level variation.  Against that backdrop, it does not seem likely that reducing the prevalence of litter and so forth would have a big effect on fear levels.

Second, there is the classic problem that correlation does not prove causation.  Although we know that visible signs of disorder and fear of crime tend to go together, it may be that fear is causing the litter and graffiti (for instance, by contributing to a generalized sense of neighborhood demoralization) rather than the other way around, or that both are caused by some other underlying factor.

Indeed, Brunton-Smith and Sturgis themselves note the causation difficulties and highlight the complex and uncertain nature of the relationship among the neighborhood-level variables they studied:

Taken together, the variables representing the three neighborhood mechanisms account for 34 percent of the variation in fear between neighborhoods within CDRP [that is, larger geographical units]. Thus, their joint effect only is marginally greater than is evident for any of them considered in isolation. This finding is particularly true of the social-structural variables that account for 30 percent of the contextual variability on their own. A clear implication here is that a good deal of causal dependency exists between these variables. It is likely, for instance, that social-structural characteristics influence both the crime rate and the level of physical disorder in a neighborhood, that the level of disorder also influences the crime rate, and that the crime rate itself feeds back, over time, to produce and reproduce weaker social-structural characteristics (Sampson and Raudenbush, 2001). It is not our goal in this article to identify the distinct indirect and total effects of each of the three proposed mechanisms. Indeed, we believe that attempting to do so would push our observational data beyond its inferential limits (Morgan and Winship, 2007). Instead, our approach is to focus on the more tractable strategy of identifying the direct and independent effects of each mechanism. (353)

Finally, there is another problem that is not really statistical at all.  We ought to think carefully about whether it is appropriate for police to take on fear-reduction per se (or community quality of life, for that matter) as a core aspect of their mission, as opposed to their traditional raison d’etre of preventing and ensuring accountability for the commission of real crime, especially of the most serious varieties.

The point I am suggesting here is related to Jonathan Simon’s broader “governing through crime” point: there are real dangers to thinking of arrest and prosecution as the standard social responses to risk, as we have in the U.S. for the past generation.  These are blunt instruments that tend to cause a lot of collateral damage.  Although fear of crime can undoubtedly be a major quality-of-life problem for many people (and the work of Brunton-Smith and Sturgis suggests that the problem is greatest for the most vulnerable members of society), I’d prefer to see it addressed through means other than broken windows policing.

Entitled “Do Neighborhoods Generate Fear of Crime? An Empirical Test Using the British Crime Survey,” the article by Brunton-Smith and Sturgis appeared at 49 Criminology 331 (2011).

One Reply to “Fear of Crime: Where You Live Matters, But So What?”

  1. Communications scholars have been able to demonstrate that regular watchers of police and detective dramas on primetime television on average have a greater fear of crime than those who do not watch these shows or primetime television in general. Regular watchers, it also seems, would be especially likely to live in the types of neighborhoods with limited social capital described by Brunton-Smith and Sturgis.

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