Last week the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics released a new report, Measuring the Prevalence of Crime with the National Crime Victimization Survey. The report contains information couched in often complex details, but they distill into promising news.
To begin, the report clarifies some of its terms: "A prevalence rate counts the number of persons who experienced at least one victimization during the year, compared to a victimization rate, which counts the number of victimizations per year. Together these two rates shed light on the amount and concentration of crime and a victim’s risk for repeat victimization. Victimization and prevalence rates describe how much of the change in criminal victimization is due to a change in the number of victims compared to the number of victimizations per victim."
To be sure, this is language only a criminologist could love. From this heady preamble encouraging things emerge. For example, the BJS observes that only 1 percent of persons 12 years old or older were the victim of a violent offense during 2010 (the study period).
To this point, they state: "The 4.9 million violent victimizations that occurred were experienced by 2.8 million victims. The percentage of violent crime victims who experienced two or more victimizations during each year declined from 23 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2010."
While this is not happy news, it at least signals that violent crime nationally may be on the decline. That said, all crime, like all politics, is ultimately local. We may see news reports about terrible things happening in other places, but their geographic distance provides us with a buffering emotional distance.
If a gunman shoots up a convenience store 200 miles away, it’s bad, but if he shoots up the 7-11 down the street, it’s a major calamity. To borrow criminologist Egon Bittner’s famous line, this kind of proximity heightens our sense of "something that ought not be happening about which something ought to be done NOW!"
Very few of us, myself included, can accurately recite the annual crime rates for our neighborhood or community. Unless they present as an egregious aberration from expected norms — my hometown’s previous year’s homicide rate being almost eight times the national average, for instance — few among us have any sense of things in a rigorously quantifiable way. Even so, every one of us knows whether he or she feels safe.
Again, building on an example form my local community, I know as a middle aged, middle class, college educated white male who’s not involved in the illegal drug trade, my statistical probability of being the victim of a violent crime is very low. This is not to say that people of similar demographic characteristics aren’t victimized, just that my cohorts’ likely risk is measurably lower than say a 20-year-old, African-American high school dropout who sells dope.
Of course, when I turn on the news and I see that unfortunate young man’s lifeless body being tended by crime scene techs, I infer that because we live in the same town, his risk and my risk must be similar. This said, if he happens to live across the street and sells drugs on my corner, my risk profile might be considerably higher despite the "statistical demographic advantage" I might otherwise have.
We then circle back to an earlier point: Few of us know the real and true odds of our safety, but we all know whether we feel safe.
Those feelings are influenced by myriad things — the news, our friends and family, our neighborhoods and many other sources. Given this is the case, I wonder what effect it would have on our communities if we started to actively manage those perceptions and identify those part of the community whose reality needs our assistance.
I am given to think that communities that dare to have those introspective moments likely feel safer and allow fewer people to experience real danger.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org