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Public Concern About Crime

Norman Dennis, Director of Community Studies, Civitas

The reduction of the fear of crime is treated by the government as a problem that is separable from the reduction of crime itself. The assumption of this approach is that the fear of crime is disproportionate to the realistic threat that crime poses. On this view, at any given level of actual crime the fear of crime both can be and ought to be reduced by government measures.

Contrary to the theory of disproportionate fears, however, an examination of the data shows that, far from succumbing to unreal fears in response to small or unchanging threats, the public has become progressively inured to increased real threats.

What has been the experience of real crime? By the time the report of first British Crime Survey appeared in the early 1980s crime was already at levels far higher than at any period since systematic crime recording began in 1857. A comparison 2002/2003 with 1983 does not reveal this fact. But as we have no statistical measure of concern about crime until the early 1980s, the comparison of trend in actual criminal incidents with the trend in the general public’s concern about crime will be limited in these paragraphs to 1983 and later.

As measured by the figures of police-recorded offences, there were 3.3 million crimes in the calendar year 1983. The properly comparable number of crimes, in the year ending March 2003 there 4.8 million.[1] As measured by the British Crime Survey, there were 11.9 million criminal incidents in 1983. In the year ending March 2003 there were 12.3 million.

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What has been the trend in the general public’s concern about crime, disparagingly referred to as the ‘fear’ of crime, or ‘moral panic’ about crime?

Crime was higher in the 2000s than in the 1980s, but concern about crime was lower. In 1983 there had been 808 thousand burglaries in dwellings. In 2002/2003 there were 888 thousand. But in 1983 23 per cent of British Crime Survey informants had been ‘very worried’ about burglary. In 2002/2003 this figure was down to 15 per cent. In 1983 there were 424 thousand thefts from motor vehicles. In 2002/2003 there were 659 thousand. But in 1983 17 per cent of informants were very worried about theft from their car. In 2002/2003 this figure was down to 13 per cent.[2]

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Crime had reached a peak in the early- to mid-1990s. The fact that the public’s worries were higher in 1983 than in 2003 was a function of a coarsening of its sensitivity to bad behaviour and, to use a medical analogy, to its tolerance of the deterioration in British civil culture—a coarsening and a tolerance that the government unwittingly encouraged by its campaigns against the ‘fear’ of crime.

In the police-recorded figures, robberies, an offence not much affected by recording changes, rose in from 25 thousand in 1983 to 121 thousand in the year ending March 2002, before being attacked by police measures in 2002 which brought the figure to 108 thousand in the year ending March 2003.[3]

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But the proportion of British Crime Survey respondents who said that they were ‘very worried’ about ‘muggings’ (snatch theft and robbery of personal property) fell from 20 per cent in 1983 to 15 per cent in 2001/2002. It fell to 14 per cent in 2002/2003.[4]

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The public had become used to crime as a fact of life. The idea that unreasonably inflated fears of crime were the product of a cruel hoax played on the gullible public by a sensation-hungry tabloid press was explicitly raised in the Home Office’s main official annual volume on crime in 2003. Worry about crime was ‘associated with’ newspaper readership. Only 7 per cent of readers of national broadsheets were very worried about muggings, but 16 per cent of readers of national tabloids.[5]

Yet that the ‘association’ was the not one hinted at, two sets of people equally exposed to the same level of risk, with one set calmly and accurately assessing the true situation under the guidance of the Guardian, and the other set unnecessarily agitated by the Daily Mail. This is strongly indicated by the Home Office’s own data. Only 6 per cent of professionals were very worried about mugging—a category relatively rich in readers of the broadsheets in their environments of relatively safe streets. But 23 per cent of the unskilled were very worried about mugging—a category relatively rich in the readers of the tabloids, living in high-crime areas.[6]

To be concerned about a problem is the indispensable preliminary to making efforts to solve it. The popular press had not been counter-productively successful in heightening concerns about crime above the level justified by real rises in crime. The contrary was the case. The government and the ‘serious’ media had been counter-productively successful in depressing concern about higher real crime levels. If the ‘risk of becoming a victim of crime remained historically low’, as the Home Office repetitively asserted in 2003, then there was no need for any special measures to be taken to combat it. There was no need to be concerned about the cultural environment. And no need to do anything substantial by way of resourcing police forces to bring them back into to some kind of balance with the criminal elements that British society produced in such abundance as its culture of law and order gradually faded away in the last decades of the twentieth century.

The general public found it more difficult to become blasé about the growing disorderliness of their own immediate neighbourhoods than about the crime problem in general. Unlike crime, an intermittent threat that in theory the police could be expected to deal with, disorderly neighbourhoods formed the persistent background to everyday life with the police intervening only when a crime had been committed.

The proportion of British Crime Survey respondents who perceived vandalism, graffiti and other deliberate defacement and destruction of public and private property in their own locality as a very big or fairly big problem rose from 26 per cent in 1992 to 35 per cent in the year ending December 2002. The proportion who perceived rubbish and litter as a very big or fairly big problem rose from 26 per cent in 1992 to 33 per cent in the year ending December 2002.The figure for drug using and drug dealing in the immediate locality rose from 14 per cent to 32 per cent.[7]

The extent to which perceptions of disorderliness are ‘associated with’ factors other than readership of the tabloid press can be read from the bar chart of the percentages of British Crime Survey respondents in different types of residential district who perceived their own immediate locality as being litter-strewn, vandalised, used by drug dealers, and so on.[8]

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If these perceptions were largely unrelated to reality, and are the creatures of exaggerated fears and moral panic, it would be difficult to explain why respondents in affluent areas, who would be expected to be the more sensitive to a given level of disorder in their immediate localities, in fact reported much less disorder than respondents in poor areas, who might be expected to less sensitive to the same level of disorder. Council estates were perceived by their residents as much more disorderly than were non-council residential areas by their residents. Among respondents in the British Crime Survey of 2001/2002, 47 per cent perceived drug use and drug dealing as being a problem in their own immediate locality, as compared with 27 per cent of the respondents in non-council areas. 52 per cent perceived vandalism and graffiti as being a problem, as compared with 30 per cent. 47 per cent perceived rubbish and litter as being a problem, as compared with 28 per cent.

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Tocqueville says of the French government’s victory over the revolutionaries of 1848, ‘We should have perished if we had not come so close to perishing’.[9] Cultures, societies, organisations and local communities can deteriorate slowly for an indefinite period. Sometimes, however, they are saved by the very extremity of their situation. In 1994 ten men and youths whose ages ranged from 15 to 24 were found guilty of an attack on a police car on the council estate where they lived, Pennywell, in Sunderland. Playing ‘brick the squaddie’ they had lured the police car onto the estate with a false alarm and one of them had thrown a brick through the windscreen. The policeman’s life was saved, but he had to leave the force due to brain damage. A witness suffered a 21 month jail sentence rather than give evidence in court. Because he had made a statement to the police, he had been beaten up, and the homes of his mother and partner had been attacked. As four of the youths left the court to begin their sentences, they were cheered by their supporters. Other ‘brickings’ involved buses with passengers having to run the gauntlet of missile-throwing gangs of youths on both sides of the street.[10]

Burglaries of homes at Pennywell ran at forty times the national average. It was described as the car-crime capital of Europe. No doctor would serve the estate locally. The shops in the estate’s post-war shopping centre each fought their losing battle against vandalism and theft, until there was none left open. 78 per cent of its young people said that they did not wish to live there when they were adults. The wider community’s state of denial in these circumstances became impossible to maintain, and theories of moral panic and prefigurative revolution held no attraction at all for the estate’s residents. Only when and because Pennywell was close to ‘perishing’ were policing and other resources applied to save it. In 1996 there had been 240 burglaries in upper Pennywell alone. In 2002/2003 there were only 29 in the whole estate.[11]

Lulled into complacency by assurances that their fears were exaggerated and that crime and disorder were at historically low levels, when they were not mocked for being in an irrational state of moral panic, other areas were left to continue their slow cultural disintegration.

Notes

[1] The raw figure for the year ending March 2003 was 5.9 million. From this must be subtracted 627 thousand extra crimes added as a result of the rule changes introduced on 1 April 1998. For a discussion of the way in which this change affected the series see Home Office Statistical Bulletin 18/99, London: Home Office, October 1999. Also to be subtracted are 490 thousand crimes attributable to the rule changes of the ACPO National Crime Recording Standard, that had to be adopted by all police forces from 1 April 2002. The impact of introducing the National Crime Recording Standard was assessed in Povey, D. and Prime, J., Recorded Crime Statistics: England and Wales April 1998 to March 2001, HOSB 12/01, London: Home Office, 1999 and Simmons, J., An Initial Analysis of Police Recorded Crime Data to End of March 2001 to Establish the Effects of the Introduction of the ACPO NCRS, London: Home Office, 2001. These two adjustments give a figure for the year ending March 2003 of 4.8 million.

[2] Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1983, London: HMSO, 1984. Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 20022003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003, p. 135.

[3] The British Crime Survey figures on robbery are not statistically reliable, but the on the best estimate robberies rose from 145 thousand in 1983 to 300 thousand in 2002/2003.

The British Crime Survey figures are from Mirlees-Black, C., Budd, T., Partridge, S. and Mayhew, P., The 1998 British Crime Survey England and Wales, Issue 21/98, London: Government Statistical Service, 1998; and Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 20022003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003.

[4] Simmons, J. and colleagues, Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002, HOSB 07/02, London: Home Office, July 2002, p. 81; and Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 2002/2003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003, p. 133.

[5] Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 2002/2003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003, p. 139.

[6] Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 2002/2003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003, p. 143.

[7] Flood-Page, C. and Taylor, J. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002: supplementary volume, HOSB 1/03, London: Home Office, 2003; Povey, D., Nicholas, S. and Salisbury, H. Crime in England and Wales: quarterly update to December 2002, HOSB 05/03, London: Home Office, April 2003, p. 8; and Simmons, J. and Dodd, T. (eds.), Crime in England and Wales 2002/2003, HOSB 07/03, London: Home Office, July 2003.

[8] ‘Disorder’ was measured by asking respondents to score their immediate locality on a scale of 0 to 3 on each of five characteristics: teenagers hanging around, vandalism, racial attacks, drug dealing and using, and people being drunk or rowdy. The worst score for a locality was 15. An immediate neighbourhood was classified as disorderly by a respondent if he scored 8 or more. Simmons, J. and colleagues, Crime in England and Wales 2001/2002, HOSB 07/02, London: Home Office, July 2002.

[9] Tocqueville, A. de, Recollections, (1893), London: Macdonald, 1970, p. 144.

[10] Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne), 18 March 1994. Sunderland Echo, 15 March 1994.

[11] ‘Just look at us now’, Sunderland Echo, 19 September 2003.

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