On Perceptions and Crime

Some thoughts.

I will warn the reader, that this is more a musing on the subject than an analytical piece.

I fully understand the frustration that many feel about the way in which reality is frequently distorted for political gain. When it comes to crime, for example, it strikes me that it is largely impossible to think that mass populations will have rational, fact-based assessments of criminality in their communities. It is often noted that humans aren’t great at assessing risk, and the whole issue of crime is one of risk assessment.

Nobody wants to be robbed, even of minor property, and certainly, no one wants themselves or their families harmed.

I often think of my very own, localized experience with this (which I expect is a common experience across the country). I lived (past tense, as I moved to a new house about a month ago) in the same neighborhood for almost exactly twenty years. It was a stereotypical suburban neighborhood that was first simply a neighborhood outside the city of Montgomery bordering a rural area. Over time it became part of an incorporated town and was diminishingly on the border between suburban and rural and more firmly surrounded by more suburbia (although am sure anyone from a large metropolitan area would still be struck by the rurality nearby).

It was, by any metric, a safe place to live. Now, of course, if you looked at the Nextdoor app or read the neighborhood HOA e-mail listserv, one would hear of massive waves of “break-ins” on occasion. These were always cases of people opening unlocked cars and stealing the contents. Not to downplay the criminality of such actions, but when someone gets upset about a rash of “break-ins” and it ends up being probably a bunch of kids trying to see if a car is unlocked, I have a hard time taking the phrase “break-in” seriously. But I can guarantee that a lot of my neighbors felt quite threatened.

Not long before we moved, I had a couple of different people tell me that the neighborhood was going downhill. The evidence was a murder that took place in the neighborhood about two years prior and a case of arson last December. The murder was a case of a domestic dispute (one boyfriend/husband shot his wife/girlfriend’s lover while he was out mowing his grass–I forget the exact relationships save it was two males and one female). That was, of course, a shockingly horrible event, but it was not like evidence of a crime spree. Moreover, the fact that one of my former neighbors tried to burn his house down for the insurance money was not evidence that we were all uniformly less safe.

Most crime of the type noted in the previous paragraph is not random. There was one other murder in that neighborhood some years ago: a disgruntled employee broke into a home and ambushed a member of the family out of revenge for some work-related issue (I forget the details). Again, this is horrible, but it is not some random act of violence that proves a given location is less safe than some other location.

And yet, all of the three examples, coupled with some actual burglaries maybe ten(?) years ago plus some “break-ins” into unlocked cars lead some to talk as if we are in a massive crime wave. No doubt, many went and bought guns (or more guns) to protect their homes (or paid for security systems). It also meant a lot of neighbors became obsessed with cameras. One was installed at an exit but it ends up not to take especially high-quality pictures. (You can’t yell “enhance” at the computer like they do on CSI: Wheverever and sharpen up that license plate).

All of this was made the worse by a robbery of a local Dollar General last week that resulted in a shoot-out with a witness which is its own story that I plan to write about separately.

Look, in writing this up I have mentioned two murders, arson, some burglaries, a robbery/shoot-out, and breaks-ins of automobiles. It actually sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Certainly, just listing crimes can make people feel on edge. But people aren’t good at putting things into context. Not to be dismissive in the least, but are two murders in twenty years perpetrated by associates of the murdered reasons to think that the neighborhood, as a whole, is less safe? Are a handful (three? four? six?) burglaries of homes (out of hundreds of houses) in a ten-year period especially concerning? If “break-ins” can be prevented by simply locking your car door, how serious of a crime problem is there?

What’s the real risk?

Again, this is not to diminish the actual crimes. I would certainly feel violated if someone opened my unlocked car and took my possessions. It would unnerve me if my neighbor was robbed, and certainly would be highly upset were I to be robbed.

But the point of all of this is that it is really very easy for people to get more upset about crime than the empirics suggest should be the case.

This matters when we ask politicians and political parties to craft messages. Emotions and fear trump facts and evidence. (And yes, why “defund the police” was tactically a bad message, although the degree to which that explains the 2020 Congressional electoral outcomes is more dubious than a lot of folks have suggested).

A lot of this is to say it is far, far easier to frighten people with crime stats, or just specific stories. It is much harder to convince them that they are actually far safer than they feel.

It is also true that people have a really hard time with scale. As bad as some of the protests in the summer of 2020 got, the idea that “the cities are burning” was well overwrought, but try explaining that to people who had no sense of the scale of Portland (or wherever).

All of this also intersects with the gun issue. If I can imagine a scenario in which I use a gun to ward off an attack on my family, I might be more inclined to obtain a weapon. The actual probability of such an attack, let alone the probability that I would be able to deploy the weapon effectively at that moment doesn’t typically figure into the calculation. (We are all too frequently victims in our own imagination and also action heroes when we push our imagination in other directions).

Further, if I feel unsafe in my city, maybe all I feel like I can do is vote for the “law and order” candidate/party.

Also, don’t discount the degree to which racial perceptions play in all of this, which is a huge factor (and is linked to perceptions of urbanity).

A personal anecdote about how people can have very skewed views of crime: in the summer of 1995 my wife and I had just returned from living in Bogotá, Colombia wherein I had been doing my dissertation research. Colombia in the mid-90s was not, shall we say, the safest of places, and not a place where a lot of gringos tread. We were staying with my grandparents in Dallas while we found a new place to live down in the Austin area. My wife and I decided to go for a walk around sundown (which in Texas in the summer is well past 9 pm). My now-departed grandmother (who was always paranoid about crime, including fears of carjacking before that was even really a thing) counseled against going out so late at night. She warned that sometimes men in cars would “swoop in, grab the woman, and just leave the man there standing.” Mind you, not only had just navigated Colombia, but my grandparents lived roughly a mile from Ross Perot (I hasten to note that their part of the neighborhood, while still quite upscale, was not in the same league as Perot’s section).

I assured my grandmother that we would be fine and my wife and I still joke about looking out for the swoopers.

FILED UNDER: Crime, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. CSK says:

    Swooping men reminds me: When I lived in Cambridge, MA in what was a very safe neighborhood, there was a shooting a few streets away from me. It was a domestic dispute, and the perp was immediately taken into custody, but I recall a group of women standing on a corner about a block away from the scene chattering excitedly about “drive-by shootings.” It was no such thing, of course. But I got the distinct impression they hoped it was, because of the drama it would add to their lives.

  2. @CSK: In the case of the boyfriend shooting the other boyfriend that I mentioned above, a lot of people call it a “drive-by” and while I do think the guy drove up and shot him, it wasn’t a “drive-by shooting” but I guess that just sounds more dramatic?

  3. Kathy says:

    Perception is a funny thing.

    I know someone who cancelled a trip to San Francisco shortly after the 1989 earthquake, because he was afraid of getting caught in a quake. He lived at the time in an area of Mexico City that was badly damaged by the quakes in 1985.

    I just don’t get it.

  4. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Oh, absolutely. “Drive by shootings” are gang stuff. City stuff. Violent, dangerous stuff.

    “Domestic dispute”? Boring.

  5. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kathy: That tale made my day. I laughed out loud. Thanks.

  6. Jay L Gischer says:

    I remember we took a family vacation to Mazatlan when I was a senior in High School. Some folks had heard some tale about someone being robbed in Mazatlan, and thought we were fools to go. We went, had a great time, didn’t see or hear any shootings. There was a great mariachi band playing at the beach tavern, though.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t have any statistics to back this up but I would be willing to bet that the leading cause of killings by people unknown to each other are drunk drivers. And I would doubt that would vary all that much by what people consider “safe” or “dangerous” areas, but rather by speed limits and traffic and how pro-active cops are and everything road related.

  8. Scott says:

    So many anecdotes to go with this. We’ve lived in the same house in San Antonio since 1994. Statistically, there was much more crime then than now. You wouldn’t know it from the hysterics on Next Door about strangers (also called solicitors) going from door to door trying to make a living or unknown cars that somehow got into their gated communities. All accompanied by some shrill political message about our mayor not doing his job. Until, that is, you point out that their neighborhood is outside the city limits and he is not their mayor.

    We have good friends up the street who are security conscious to the extreme with security systems, outside night lighting, guns at the ready, etc. We are just the opposite. House mostly unlocked during the day if we’re home. No monthly payments for security system. No guns. Etc. After 28 years, we have the same number of crimes committed against us. I.e., none.

    I tend to look at house burglaries this way: What the heck are they going to steal? The TV. Great! I get a new one. Some antiques? Not likely. Jewelry? Not much there.

    So what is the risk to be mitigated and the probability to be reduced? Just like with COVID, people don’t know how to evaluate risk so even the smallest probability of risk is unacceptable.

  9. @Scott: Next Door is a revelation, and almost always in a bad way.

    We had a security system for a while (after the burglaries I mentioned ten or so years ago around the corner). My wife talked me into it. All it was good for was going off at inopportune times. Just worthless.

  10. (But to hear the ADT salesman talk, it was like having a freakin’ force field installed).

  11. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “But to hear the ADT salesman talk, it was like having a freakin’ force field installed”

    Which brings to mind one of my all-time favorite Simpsons moments:


  12. Modulo Myself says:

    I lived in San Francisco in the late 90s. Drug use and homelessness were common sights. When I lived in Nob Hill, I walked home from work from SOMA. My walk took me through the Tenderloin, which was not gentrified then, and it was filled with open-air everything. My car was broken into
    numerous times. And there was an anti-yuppie group going through the Mission smashing windows of new restaurants.

    In the time since, I’ve read these SF is changing and doomed articles non-stop, and yet when I go back it seems pretty much the same. If it’s worse, it’s worse because of certain reasons–Covid, opiates, lack of health care, a fucked justice system–and nothing that has happened now is independent of what happened twenty years ago. It’s part of a long-term process.I think people have become more rigid, and they’ve fetishized the ‘safety’ of getting in your jumbo-sized car and driving from Whole Foods to a home in a development where you know nobody, and that’s the ideal now driving political perceptions of law and order.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    When we lived in Cincinnati my wife worked in an exurban small town. Her co-workers were aghast that she’d ride alone on a suburban bike path. The small town was so much safer. As long as you didn’t cross the biker/drug gang.

    Crime, in terms of crime, isn’t a very real issue. But, for all the reasons Dr. T enumerates, it is very real as a political issue. That it isn’t very real makes it harder to deal with politically.

  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have the local post office diagonally behind my house–with a big light shining all night long–and on the other diagonal, a house with a bright “security light” over the garage. I could go out in the middle of the night in a Ronald McDonald suit and dance a jig and nobody would see me–because they’re all gone or asleep.

    The only “exterior” light I have on at night is a 15W bulb on the back porch–and that’s just so I can see to unlock the door when it’s dark (and I leave it on all the time because the switch is inside and I used to forget to turn it on when I left–so I couldn’t see to put the key in the lock). 🙂

  15. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    All it was good for was going off at inopportune times.

    Sounds like the security system at work.

    All it ever did was interrupt my morning podcast/audiobook reading, when I got a call like this

    Idiot coworker: The alarm went off. How do I disarm it (alarm wailing in the background)
    Me: punch in your code.
    Coworker: I did! It doesn’t work.
    Me: punch in mine. it’s 1234
    Coworker: ok.(pause) It’s not working! (alarm still wailing in the background)
    Me: What did you punch in?
    Coworker: *1234
    Me: Don’t use the star. Just the numbers.
    Coworker: ok.(pause) It’s not working! (alarm still wailing in the background)
    Me: listen very carefully. DO NOT PUNCH STAR. Only the numbers.
    Coworker: ok.(pause) It’s not working!
    Me: Just the fucking numbers!
    Coworker: Don’t yell at me!
    Me: Don’t be a moron. No star. Only numbers.
    Coworker: IT’S STILL NOT WORKING!!
    Me: I’ll disarm it when I get there.

    I get the confusion in punching star, because to arm it you either used your code (without star), or star zero. I don’t get the insistence on punching star before the code after being told not to.

    Being me, I taped a paper stating “enter 1234 NO STAR to disarm.” It was taken down literally not five minutes later. I then taped one stating “enter number code NO STAR to disarm.” that one stayed up only two days.

  16. Michael Cain says:

    I lived in one of Denver’s inner-ring suburbs for 30 years. It had abnormally low violent crime numbers, even for Colorado. It was recognized by area law enforcement: Denver cops tended to retire there in preference to other places because of the reputation.

  17. @wr: Hilarious.

    And it reminds of when I tried to cancel. It was a seemingly unending stream of versions of “surely, you want to protect your family!” until I finally couldn’t take it anymore and insisted they cancel and stop asking me not to.

  18. Jc says:

    Much of it has to do with the information age we are in now. In the 80’s there was crime around neighborhoods. If you heard about it, was generally from neighbors. Now any petty crime that occurs in neighborhoods is shared on social media reposted on neighborhood Facebook or message boards to the point of exhaustion, and just makes something random, but still a criminal act, morph into “the neighborhood is going to hell” hide your children and arm up paranoia.

  19. @Kathy: For a while we would arm the thing at night. But if there was a thunderstorm that rattled windows, it would set it off. One night there was a huge BOOM followed by the GD alarm going off. After that, if there was a hint of rain, I did not arm it. Soon, I simply did not arm it.

    We would occasionally get calls when we were out of town that the alarm was going off. I am 99.99999% sure it was because one of the cats tried to get a lizard on the other side a window and set off the alarm.

    Twice my kids accidentally sat on the “panic” button on the fob and the cops showed up at the house,

    Now, on the one had, kudos for the rapid response, but not once did we actually need them.

  20. @Jc: I think it is a very old phenomenon made worse by social media.

    The whole notion of “if it bleeds, it leads” predates the internet.

  21. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    The purpose of a security system – and the little stickers they give you – is to suggest to the potential burglar or home invader that they’d have slightly easier prey elsewhere. It’s a bit like the old saw about two guys being chased by a bear – you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guy.

    Security systems and dogs are ways to shift the risk to your neighbors. I have both.

  22. @Michael Reynolds: But, of course, by that logic (which I understand) you really only need the ADT sign, not the ADT system. 😉

  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Indeed. But then you’d never get to savor that moment when you drop a dish after the alarm is set and for one second. . . two seconds. . . you hope and pray that. . . nope goddammit, now the fucking dog is howling, too, and of course the ADT app is down.

  24. MarkedMan says:

    @Mu Yixiao: My sister in law grew up in rural Illinois, where the farms are flat rectangles and hundreds or thousands of acres. I once asked her why every farmhouse had a gigantic floodlight on all night long, up on a tower illuminating the whole place as bright as day. She didn’t miss a beat, “because they have millions of dollars worth of equipment in the outbuildings and all the neighbors are too far away to notice anything if thieves showed up.”

    There was a walnut tree on the property, ancient and like three feet across at the base. It was used for shade by a pond and anyone working in the fields would come there for lunch. Three generations had kept it trimmed so it went straight up about 80 feet before it had branches. They used to joke about how it was their retirement fund because it was worth a fortune to a veneering mill. They left it one day and when they came back the next it was gone. Someone had driven a logging truck and at least one other piece of heavy equipment in through through the back way, fired up a chainsaw for at least a half hour, brought a huge tree crashing down, loaded it up and drove off and no one in the farmhouse heard a thing. The dogs didn’t even bark.

  25. grumpy realist says:

    Any alarm system involving ultrasonics is a no-go for me. Japan has TONS of ultrasonic-based security systems and I remember running out of a bank entrance with an ATM (after hours, only the entrance was open) with my hands over my ears screaming to a friend “can’t you HEAR it?!”

    I know that only young-un’s are supposed to be able to hear up in the ultrasonic ranges–ha!

  26. Modulo Myself says:

    Several people in my neighborhood have motion-activated systems that say Hello you are being recorded every time a person walks by. It’s loud enough to be annoying, and I don’t totally understand how anybody thinks that is acceptable in NYC. Also, I’ve seen enough security cam footage of experienced guys grabbing a safe. There are plenty of ways to obscure your face, especially at night.

  27. Tony W says:

    @Kathy: When I lived in Seattle I traveled to San Jose one day for some meetings – was supposed to fly back to Seattle that evening, but my flight home was canceled due to a large earthquake in the Seattle area.

    I thought it was funny to travel to the epicenter of earthquake-ville in the U.S. only to miss the biggest earthquake in Seattle in several decades.

  28. @JustAGirl: I am not denying the stats.

    But that wasn’t the point.

  29. Fortunato says:

    Speaking of Crime – why is this monumental story not on the front page, above the fold? From Empty Wheel –

    The Alpha Bank/Trump server story is real.
    A direct connection between Trump and Vlad’s personal bank. It’s a connection that has NEVER actually been debunked.
    As Marcy Wheeler reveals, the Durham ‘trial’ (i.e. faceplant) made that fact quite clear.

    Tim Miller, at The Bulwark, actually makes the case with less legalese than Marcy.
    The Alfa Bank Hoax Hoax
    MAGAs once again think they have proof Hillary did the Russia scandal—and once again they are full of shit.

    Can someone see if they can roust Merrick Garland out of his slumber?

  30. Kurtz says:


    The old owners could be in here!

  31. Kurtz says:

    Back in college, I used clips from “The Cartridge Family” for a prenetation on political rhetoric. I put emphasis on the scene where Homer pokes Lisa in the chest and says, “The King of England could come here and just start shoving you around!”

    This was years ago.

  32. Michael Cain says:

    @grumpy realist:
    And females. Long ago I worked at a place where the entire procurement process for computer terminals was staffed by men. The instant they fired up one of the new terminals on our hall, all the women ran screaming. Flyback transformer in the power supply resonated at a frequency none of the men could hear, but almost all the women could.

  33. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I had an ADT system years ago. Got rid of it for several reasons (not least of which is they–in general, not necessarily my house–generate so many false alarms that they can be a real burden on local police), but the sign saying I have ADT is still out there. You really don’t need the service to take advantage of the signaling that your house will be slightly tougher to rob.

  34. Kari Q says:


    And yet, crime is still down dramatically from the high of the 1990s. The increase in the murder rate is concerning, of course, but it is an increase from a very low level. I’m in my 50s and the country is safer than it has been at any previous time in my life.

  35. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Cain: Heh, maybe that’s why….I was already in my late 30s working in a research lab and we all used to joke that I would run out of the lab building whenever any of the ultrasonic levitation testing was going on….

  36. DK says:


    The U.S. murder rate increased by 30% in 2020.

    Donald Trump was president in 2020, dearest.