When my grandfather learned I was going to college in New York City, he knew what to give me for a high-school graduation present: a hunting knife. If I was going to make it to class, he explained, I would probably have to defend myself. Never mind that this was 2002, and crime in New York City had plummeted since its high in the early 1990s. You could never be too careful.
His concern highlights the bizarre way we think about crime. Even as crime rates have gone down around the country over the last 20 years, our fear of crime hasn't changed much at all. Between 1990 and 2009, the national violent-crime rate was halved, while property crime dropped to 60 percent of its previous rate, according to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data. But almost every year since 1989, most Americans have told pollsters they believe crime is getting worse.
The disparity has been especially clear in New York City. That city saw the most dramatic crime decline of all: Since 1990, the homicide rate has dropped 82 percent, robbery by 84 percent, rape by 77 percent, and auto theft a stunning 94 percent, according to the New York Police Department. These numbers have now been confirmed in an independent study by Frank Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, who confirms that the drop in crime is "real."
But New Yorkers don't feel correspondingly safer. "If you walk these streets, especially at night, you know crime is definitely not down," a cab driver who lives in Harlem told the New York Daily News in 2009. "It's not safe. I don't know where they get these statistics." Same with Baltimore, where a statistical decline in crime is no match for the occasional sensational murder that reinforces the city's reputation as a dangerous town.
Zimring says it's typical for people to ignore drops in crime. "[T]he recent public reaction to New York's epidemic of public safety is rather complacent," he writes in a summary of his new study. "In one sense, this is understandable—crime statistics only command attention when citizens are worried about crime just as people only think about dentists when their teeth hurt."
Part of the reason is that most people can't measure the crime rate accurately based on their own experience. While you may be twice as safe statistically speaking, the odds of getting assaulted at any given moment have merely gone from very small to extraordinarily small. Perception of crime has less to do with overall trends than those in your immediate vicinity, says Daniel Lewis, a professor of social policy at Northwestern University. The places with the most crime feel crime drops most dramatically. "Most of the bad stuff happens to people in poor neighborhoods," says Lewis. "It doesn't happen on Fifth Avenue or the Gold Coast in Chicago. But if you're living in Harlem today, it's a really different place than it was in 1990."
It also matters who you are. Old people are typically more scared of crime than young people—even though they're the demographic least likely to be victimized. Women are generally more worried about crime than men. Fear of rape in particular has little relationship with the statistical risk, says Lewis. Personal experience is a big factor, too. Even if the crime rate drops by half, you're more likely to feel scared if your best friend gets assaulted.