Banging the Crime Drum

John Buttle

As local elections loom large in our immediate future and politicians scramble to identify a cause to endear them to the public, it is likely that someone is going to start banging the drum about crime. It’s not new, it’s not original, and it’s ultimately detrimental to the politician’s career when their stale and unoriginal ideas, such as boot camps, fail to have any impact.

One of the reasons why the noise created by politicians about crime often appeals to voters is that people are more concerned for their safety than they are actually at risk of being victimized. In other words, many people believe crime to be a larger problem than it actually is. Despite the fact that overall national crime rates have been decreasing at a steady rate since the mid 1990s, in the Ministry of Justice’s Public Perceptions of Crime 2016 survey report, 71% of people expressed the belief that crime was on the increase. However, these same people also believed that their local neighborhoods were safe and relatively crime-free, with only 38% saying there is a local crime problem.

Stuff’s ‘Your Place 2019’ survey asked “Do you feel safe walking, running or cycling after dark in your local area?” and 58.4% responded that they felt safe while 41.6% indicated that they did not feel safe. When asked “Have you been the victim or witnessed crime or anti-social behavior in your area in the past year?” 40.5% replied yes. Given that these two questions focus on people’s perceptions of the local area, the findings of this survey are in line with previous research demonstrating that many people expressed the perception that their local areas are relatively safe.

However, a word of caution needs to be made about these latest findings. The survey asked if people feel safe walking, running, or cycling after dark, but respondents who answer the question as walking might do so for different reasons than those for running or cycling. Someone who is concerned about walking after dark may be concerned about being mugged, while an after-dark cyclist may provide the same response but be concerned about not seeing a pothole and coming off their bike – so the survey does not distinguish between fear of crime and fear of potholes.

In a similar way people were asked whether they had been a victim of crime, or whether they had seen crime or anti-social behavior. The inclusion of anti-social behavior is the most problematic for interpretation as it includes actions that cause direct harm, along with behaviors such as adolescent males loudly hanging around on a street corner. There is no way to discern between victims of crime and mere incivility.

Regardless of any methodological flaws, this survey along with past studies raises interesting questions for those seeking office in the local elections. On a national level people perceive crime to be a greater threat than it actually is. Their concerns about safety make a fertile feeding ground for populist politicians seeking to take advantage of their fear. However, when it comes to people’s own backyards, lived experience may mediate concerns about crime, providing a more realistic perception of this problem.

To many, crime may not be a big problem and any attempt to make it so could be considered as out of touch with the community. Therefore, those politicians seeking office in local elections might want to consider their options before banging the drum about crime – because there might be no one listening.

Dr John Buttle is a Senior Lecturer for the criminology and criminal justice degrees at AUT. He conducts research on matters to do with the criminal justice system, and comments on crime-related matters.

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