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Why Americans Are Worrying More About Crime

3 minute read

Crime rates in the U.S. are near all-time lows. Violent crime has been plummeting for decades. And the number of murders in America’s cities are nowhere near their levels of the late 1980s and 1990s.

But no matter: Americans are more concerned about crime and violence than anytime since the months before Sept. 11, according to a new Gallup poll released Wednesday.

Fifty-three percent of respondents told Gallup that they worry “a great deal” about crime and violence, a jump from 39% the year before, the lowest level measured in the poll’s 15-year history. The new figure is the highest since March 2001, when it reached 62%.

Read more: 10 Cities Where Americans Are Pretty Much Terrified to Live

Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, gives three possible explanations for the uptick: a jump in violent crime nationwide; high-profile shootings that gained widespread media attention; and the absence of other larger economic or foreign policy concerns. “This year clearly represents something and is tapping into something out there,” Newport says.

There has indeed been a slight increase in violence across the U.S. after years of decline. According to the FBI, violent crime rose by 1.7% in the first half of 2015 while a number of cities like Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., have seen significant increases in their murder rates.

But Ryan King, an Ohio State University sociology professor, says he believes popular sentiment about crime might be driven less by a statistically minor increase in aggregated crime rates than by assorted, heinous events in the news — the attacks in San Bernardino, for example, and unrest in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson.

“Historically, there’s a very weak relationship between actual crime and fear of crime,” King says. Gallup’s numbers show that even as crime dipped dramatically over the last decade, the percentage of Americans concerned about crime remained steady.

Read more: Why Americans Are More Afraid Than They Used to Be

Perceptions are also informed by the political conversation. Criminal justice issues have repeatedly come up in this year’s presidential election, with Democrats calling for prison and sentencing reform as Republicans like Donald Trump have made crimes committed by illegal immigrants a campaign staple.

Gallup’s poll shows that while concerns over crime and violence increased across all demographics, Americans who are white, aged 18 to 34, or without a college degree are the most worried. Those fears are only partly justified, according to numbers by the U.S. Department of Justice. While people younger than 35 are more likely then older individuals to be the victims of violent crime, black Americans are also more prone to being violent crime victims compared with whites or Hispanics.

But while Americans appear more concerned over violence than they have been in years, it’s important to note that in Gallup’s open-ended poll in March about the biggest problems facing the U.S., the percentage of respondents who cited crime and violence was only 2%. America’s bigger problems, they said, were unemployment, health care, and terrorism.

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