If crime is down, why don’t people feel safer?

Crime statistics show that New Westminster is a safer city than in past years. So why don’t people feel safer?

We all know someone who knows someone whose house has been broken into several times, or who has witnessed flagrant drug dealing, or seen a new ‘girl’ working 12th St. And then there’s the newspaper crime beat. A New Westminster man was recently arrested (and released on bail) for allegedly sexually assaulting a young woman near a Vancouver SkyTrain Station (and some people misheard it as a rape at 22nd St. Station). Cats were doused in paint thinner. Children were followed by a suspicious man in a truck near a school.

People remember stories, not statistics.

But when people believe their neighbourhoods to be unsafe, things get worse. When people are afraid, they don’t go out on the streets at night. They talk less to strangers (and neighbours). The change in behaviour leads to fewer eyes on the street and weaker neighbourhood ties. We get more crime, not less.

Unfortunately, we humans are just not very good at assessing the relative risk of certain behaviours. We overestimate some (the risk of being assaulted by a stranger when walking at night, for example) and underestimate others (the risk of being injured or killed in a car crash, which is one of the leading causes of non-disease related death).

In an essay on the psychology of security, security technologist and author Bruce Schnier identifies five common reasons why people are so bad at assessing risk:

  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny

In other words, ordinary dangers (car crashes, accidents at home) lack the powerful elements of story that make the extraordinary dangers (stranger attack or child abduction by a stranger) so compelling and scary.

Instead of focusing on the (now fewer) accounts of prostitution, drug dealing, and other bad behaviours, let’s focus our energy on things we can control. Clean up graffiti and litter. Be neighbourly. Spend time out on the street. Take care of each other and get involved in our community, and our city will continue to become a better place to live.

Note: this post was inspired by a comment I wrote on the Voice New Westminster blog, on the post by Jan Fialkowski, “Crime Stats Down in the City.” The post was also published as a letter in the Newsleader.

9 Replies to “If crime is down, why don’t people feel safer?”

  1. Fantastic post. Assessing risk is something we never do very well, and sensational stories do play better than much more real dangers like unattended kids around swimming pools. The more you know the people around you, the better off we are, and the more we can create those ties between neighbours, the more we’ll know that the world isn’t a scary place after all.

  2. One thing I remember about my childhood is the moments when I took incredible personal risks, like (gasp!) walking to school on my own!! And yet, the instances of dangers I faced were no greater than they would be today, statistically speaking. It’s just that these stories that we hear about are now coming at us all the time through 24 hour media. I think that with the great benefits of multimedia and technology, we have to exercise a certain brand of discernment, to keep us from thinking that our lives aren’t going to turn into an episode of Criminal Minds unless we’re very, very careful.

    The greater burden on us of course is not to raise generations of children who feel that the world is utterly inhospitable to them, and that people they don’t know are not to be trusted. This is a major burden for our generation in particular as parents of young children. We must fight against reducing ourselves to the role of security ‘copters, and allow our children to explore our world, so that they can learn how to contribute in repairing it, or at least closer to how we feel our world should be.

    Maybe this requires stories, too. But, the right ones.

  3. This is a topic that's been on my mind for a long time too. A few years ago I attended the 2-day NWPS strategic review workshop as one of the community representatives. It was fascinating having this glimpse in to the NWPS and spending two days talking and brainstorming with NWPS members.

    Crime IS down in our city. Its been decades since its been this safe to walk down the streets at night. Yet the perception of increased danger is there. This was a topic that came up time and time again during the workshop. In pretty much all the exercises the recommendation that bubbled to the top was not how to make our streets safer, it was always how to make our street FEEL safer. There was no doubt from the NWPS members in the room our street WERE safe already.

    A lot of the fear we see is instinctual, a lot of the manipulation on these fears by politicians is playing to these baser instincts. We're wired to see things in the shadows, from the days our ancestors had to keep an eye out for a tiger hiding in the bushes ready to pounce. But we're not in the jungle anymore and we do have to learn to use these higher brain functions to properly weight the real risks from the perceived. To be controlled these instincts, which valuable as they may be at times, should not drive our every day lives and reactions.

    You're absolutely right, we're not very good at realistically weighing risks. Statistics and proper risk assessment based on science should be better taught so we can all make more sound judgments, not just with respect to crime but with respect to all aspects of our lives. Science! 🙂

  4. Can you please elaborate on the "newspaper crime beat". Is this some sort of scam? I have never heard of it.


    1. Hi David: A "newspaper beat" is a topic that is closely followed by a specialist reporter. For example, there would be a reporter whose "beat" is crime. I meant that the crime stories we see in newspapers often make us more scared than we ought to be given the statistical likelihood of becoming a victim of a similar crime.

  5. What we need is a COURT DOCKET and police reports for the week either on the police web or the paper, so we can see for ourselves rather then statistics that can be manipulated by our rather questionable police board.

    I for one don't feel safer, having my life threatened twice this year by young thugs.


  6. Several weeks ago I responded to a story in the NewsLeader that crime in New Westminster has gone down. In my letter to the editor and on the Voice New Westminster blog, I indicated that I, personally, didn’t feel any safer knowing that crime was down in the city. Being safer and feeling safer are two different things, aren’t they? The likelihood of my being mugged in the park is probably low; the likelihood of being hit by a car while crossing the street is higher. I’d prefer not to experience either, and I take equal precautions to ensure that neither happens if I can help it. I believe that’s assessing risk. It would be nice if being and feeling was the same thing.

    Matthew Laird refers to our ancestors being wired to avoid the tiger in the bushes. There are still bushes and there are still tigers in the bushes – regrettably they tend to be the two-legged kind. Last night my car was keyed in front of the house, Thursday morning shots were fired 8 blocks from my house and less than a week ago, the police arrested a 22 year old man in my neighbourhood on suspicion of drug trafficking. I’m still not feeling safer.

    I recommend reading the Great Neighborhood Book by Jay Walljasper and have a look at a Project for Public Spaces website. If only the guy who keyed my car had.

  7. Can can we think crime is down when yet another drive by shooting in the west end??
    Neighbours avoid going for walks and fear being alone on the streets at night!
    Wow, great way to feel safe in your own community.

  8. And a further note to Matthew………
    There was no "science" involved in the recent drive by shooting on Dublin street, it was just two blocks from my house. Many of my neighbour heard the shots, I'm sure they would be gratified to know that science was on their side…… Our neighbourhood is riddled with hateful thugs doing hateful things, what is this the 4th drive by shooting in the West End including injuries and death. I'm sure the victims and neighbours feel cold comfort with your assertions.

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