Opinion | Why Do People Think Crime Is Worse Than it Actually Is?

In 2022, according to F.B.I. numbers, there were 370 violent crimes reported for every 100,000 Americans. Even allowing for some underreporting, this likely means there was less than one violent crime for every 200 people. So the great majority of Americans haven’t been victims lately, or probably ever.

What this implies is that public views about crime needn’t have much to do with personal experience. They may instead be shaped by impressions people pick up from media, both news and social, and from politicians.

In other words, perceptions about crime are like perceptions about the economy — perhaps more so: They don’t necessarily bear much relationship to reality.

Now, sometimes popular impressions are more or less right. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Hollywood was producing vigilante thrillers like “Death Wish” and dystopian sagas like “Escape From New York,” violent crime really was surging:

However, violent crime began falling rapidly in the early 1990s, for reasons that remain unclear. Whatever the source of the good news, there were two remarkable things about this decline. First, it was truly epic; as someone who has lived in New York since 2015 but visited it many times over previous decades, I can attest that the city feels infinitely safer than it did in the bad old days. Second, most Americans didn’t notice.

Donald Trump devoted his 2017 inaugural address to the theme of “American carnage” — a supposed wave of violence sweeping our cities. At the time, actual urban violence was near a generational low point. But his rhetoric nonetheless resonated with many Americans. After all, throughout the epic decline in crime, voters kept telling pollsters that crime was rising nationally (although they were more sanguine about crime in their own areas, about which they may have had more personal knowledge):

And like views about the economy, perceptions about crime have a strong partisan element, with Republicans generally more likely to say that crime is rising, especially when a Democrat is president:

In 2020 and 2021, it briefly looked as if Trump’s dark vision might retroactively be coming true. There was in fact a surge in crime beginning in 2020, especially in murders:

Unlike the somewhat mysterious decline in crime in previous decades, this crime wave wasn’t too hard to explain. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a lot of isolation and disruption, plus a lot of psychological stress, making it plausible that some Americans became disconnected from the social bonds that usually keep most of us law-abiding.

The big question was whether the post-Covid surge in crime would, like the post-Covid surge in inflation, prove transitory. Would crime keep rising, or would it subside back to relatively low levels?

Well, the answer appears to be in, and it’s encouraging. Murders dropped significantly in 2022, and so far seem to be falling even faster this year. Take the example of New York City, which had 319 murders in 2019 — down from 2,262 in 1990! — but saw that total rise to 488 in 2021. If trends this year continue, the number of murders in 2023 will probably be under 400, much of the way back to the low crime rates of the 2010s.

I should acknowledge that while violent crime is clearly on the downswing, some forms of property crime are still running high. Many pharmacies in New York and other cities, concerned about theft, now keep their products locked behind glass, which isn’t scary but is annoying. Still, America is clearly getting safer again, and is much safer than it was two decades ago.

But if history is any guide, most voters won’t believe it. Politicians will run campaigns promising to defend Americans against a terrifying crime wave, even as crime is receding nationwide.

Wait, there’s more. In addition to having false beliefs about trends in crime over time, many Americans have false beliefs about the geography of crime. In particular, Republicans often treat it as an established fact that blue states, and especially cities run by Democrats, have higher crime rates than red states and cities, with New York singled out for special opprobrium. Back in April, the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee held a “field hearing” on “victims of violent crime in Manhattan.”

But the reality is that red states have consistently higher homicide rates than blue states. Most big cities are run by Democrats, but those run by Republicans don’t have significantly lower crime. And New York City happens to have remarkably low crime, with a murder rate around half that of Republican-run cities like Miami and Fort Worth. (My guess is that part of the reason for low crime in New York is the city’s large immigrant population — because contrary to another myth, immigrants are relatively law-abiding.)

Again, however, it’s doubtful whether data, or even the lived experiences of those of us who reside in places many Americans believe to be hellscapes, will change many minds.

So what’s the moral of this story? The good news is that while many feared that America was about to experience a sustained resurgence of crime, at this point we seem to be heading back to the prepandemic normal of fairly low crime. The bad news is that the politics of fear can work, even if there isn’t much basis for those fears.


Is San Francisco in a doom loop?

Never mind crime, what about work from home?

The case for a big-city renaissance.