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).
- 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.