Americans might be concerned about figures showing a rise in violent crime across the country. But, polled on crime rates within their own communities, most correctly believe their neighborhoods haven’t become more dangerous. Writing in the Atlantic, David A. Graham argues that the way Americans make sense of crime rates influences the direction of federal and local policies.
Most Americans perceive the difference in crime rates averaged across the country and those documented in individual communities, argues Graham. The response to so-called “national crime” and local flare-ups differ, too. In response to rising homicide rates in several major cities, President Joe Biden launched a series of anti-crime measures that target illegal gun ownership, though experts disagree about his plan’s effectiveness.
According to Graham, this broad, national initiative in-part responds to polls on crime: In a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Americans believed that crime had increased.
But simplistic narratives, aggravated by sensational news coverage — which merge very different offenses and flatten different communities into one large trend — have historically led to punitive solutions.
Gary LaFree, the chair of the criminology and criminal-justice department at the University of Maryland, puts national panicking about crime into historical perspective. “The political impact is substantial. Going all the way back to when Barry Goldwater first started weaponizing crime as a national issue, it’s been part of the national discussion on a political level,” he said.
Comprising these national trends are rates of local crime across thousands of cities and towns, which tell a more nuanced story. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 59 percent of respondents saw crime as a serious problem nationally, but only 17 percent felt the same way about their own area.
National crime rates paint a broad brush, and local ones — in addition to their increased accuracy — are arguably more helpful for devising solutions.
“Understanding the broad trends is important, but most crime-fighting is local, and the federal government has little role,” Graham writes.
For one, the survey respondents who speculate that crime hasn’t risen in their communities are likely correct, because, according to Northwestern University political scientist Wesley G. Skogan, “violent crime in particular is hugely concentrated.”
But politicians often choose to overlook city-by-city, or even state-by-state, crime rates, instead compelling voters through alarmist narratives about rising crime. At a time when crime rates were remarkably low, former president Donald Trump spent his 2016 campaign warning Americans of rising violence to promote punitive policies.
Beyond the inaccuracy of Trump’s claim, “law enforcement isn’t primarily a federal issue,” Graham writes.
This reality is perhaps the most significant reason why distinguishing national and local crime matters: targeted solutions to crime, which are often more effective than national initiatives, require local knowledge.
“The divergent views of crime locally and nationally produce two divergent possibilities for fighting the increase in violence,” Graham writes.
“Politicians could take worries about national crime as a cue to pursue blunt and simplistic answers of the past, including stricter sentencing and over-policing.”
“But the nuanced views among the public suggest that policy makers have the flexibility to devise locally appropriate strategies for crime.”
Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.