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Do you feel safe?

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| January 16, 2024 1:00 AM

The gap between what we complain about and what’s actually a problem seems to be widening.

Take crime: Last year, the murder rate in the U.S. dropped more than any year on record. In fact, with the exception of car theft, every serious crime decreased. According to early data collected by AH Datalytics, a research firm which compiles FBI and law enforcement statistics, murders dropped by 13% last year compared with 2022. That’s a significant change; the best decrease before that was by 9% in 1996.

All violent crime was down 8.2% in the first three quarters of 2023. (Reported) rape was down 14.8%; robbery, 9.4%; and property crimes were down 6.3% (except auto theft, which was up by 10%).

When crime is down, especially violent crime, logic suggests we’d feel safer. While a handful saw increases (e.g., Seattle, D.C., and Dallas), most major cities across the nation reported meaningful declines in murder rates in the last year or two. As reported in The Monitor Daily, Detroit had the fewest homicides since 1966. Baltimore, known for its high murder rate, had a 23% drop last year. New Orleans, a 27% drop; Atlanta, Houston, and Milwaukee, down about 22%. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago had 12-15% fewer homicides last year.

Closer to home, the Coeur d’Alene Police annual report last year showed lower crime rates in most categories, despite increasing population (see Bill Buley’s April 22 story).

So why do Americans think the opposite?

According to a November Gallup survey, despite these facts 77% of Americans believe crime was higher in 2023 than the previous year. Two out of three surveyed say the crime problem is “extremely” or “very” serious. That’s a lot higher than its previous most pessimistic crime poll in 2000, when 60% thought crime was bad. What’s intriguing about the latest responses is that only 17% thought it was bad in their own neighborhood.

So somehow, many of us believe that crime is getting worse (when it’s not) — in most places other than where we actually live. While the numbers don’t back it up.

How Americans got so disconnected from reality is a mystery. Looking at Gallup surveys, in 2020 when there actually were some crime spikes, public perception matched reality. That pandemic spike was short-lived; between human behavior calming down and laudable policing efforts to address it, things are looking pretty good, safety-wise.

In fact, if you look at graphs charting crime rates since 1985 (an interesting exercise that should bolster feelings of safety), the biggest drop in actual crimes occurred in the 1990s.

Picture a steep, narrow mountain. Imagine the peak near the very top of the chart in the early 1990s, with a sharp drop descending near the bottom just before 2000. It strongly suggests we are a lot safer now than we were 25 years ago, even with a larger population and big shifts in society.

Either we aren’t reading enough unadulterated data from reliable sources (that’s a safe bet, given America’s decline in readership and attention spans), or we have become a culture favoring fear over fact. Likely, it’s both.

It’s no coincidence that the internet was born coincident with this disconnect. Social media and biased media have developed and flourished over the same period. Our insecurity has a lot to do with the information we are following, and the ease with which anyone — from political figures to random unknowns — can create and spread anything without accountability. Stupidly, we tend to emotionally react, repost and shock-share without first verifying that the “information” is supported by actual facts, qualified peer review, and no-longer-common sense.

Such as the sense to know that social media is not a reliable source, a suitable place to form an opinion, nor an advisable place to spend much time if we want to stay rooted in reality. It’s certainly no place to feel secure.

Mired somehow in this blurred environment of misinformation overload are persuasive and positive reasons, based on objective facts, to feel relatively safe and encouraged. Somewhere out there, in all-but-abandoned reliable sources with carefully vetted data, the proof is waiting.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.