As grim crime scenes fill our newscasts and nightmares, Americans feel more threatened by violence than ever. But the surprising truth for most people is that. . . YOU'RE SAFER THAN YOU THINK
(MONEY Magazine) – THERE IS NO SAFE PLACE ANYMORE. That fearful message is driven home by the endless rat-a-tat-tat of pointless carnage that marks us as one of the world's most violent societies. Listen to the grim crime tally: Every 22 minutes, on average, someone is murdered in America. Someone is raped every four minutes, robbed every 26 seconds, seriously assaulted every 17 seconds. You see the reality of those statistics on television every day; network news coverage of violence has doubled over the past year. And since the violence is often random -- a massacre on the Long Island Railroad yesterday, a child gunned down in the projects today -- it's not surprising that 77% of Americans told MONEY in an exclusive national poll that they worry about becoming violent- crime victims. This fear runs almost equally strong among blacks and whites, rich and poor, city dwellers and suburbanites alike. This pervasive dread is understandable -- but misplaced. MONEY's ground- breaking four-month investigation, built around an analysis of more than 20 years of crime statistics, shows that Americans share a number of fundamental misconceptions about crime and its impact. In particular, while violence remains a serious problem -- justifying measures like the estimated $22 billion anticrime bill making its way through Congress recently -- most of us are much more afraid of crime than the facts warrant. Some evidence: -- Violent crime is not at an all-time high. "All this talk about a crime wave is more myth than reality," says Darrell Steffensmeier, a Penn State criminologist. "The risk of being a victim of a violent crime for most Americans is really very small and actually lower than it was 10 years ago." Figures collected by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest that more than 90% of Americans are safer today than they have been during much of the past two decades. Indeed, the most recent figures released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation show a 1% decrease in violent crime in 1993. The exception to the trend is our young people, especially minority teens; they are suffering through a crime epidemic of tragic proportions (see "Voices From the Mean Streets" on page 129). Still, some criminologists worry that the drop in violent crime since the early 1980s -- largely the result of a decline in the number of teens in the U.S. population -- could reverse itself as the most violent-prone segment of the population (15- to 19-year-olds) grows nearly twice as fast as the overall U.S. population over the next decade. -- Violent crime is not an equal-opportunity offender. Your chances of being attacked vary tremendously according to your age, race, sex and neighborhood. The risk of becoming a victim of a serious violent crime is nearly four times higher if you are 16 to 19 years old, for example, than 35 to 49; almost three times higher if you are black instead of white; two times if you are male, not female; and again double if you live in a city rather than in a suburb or in the country. Lump several of these risk factors together and the differences become enormous: For instance, the chances of a white woman 65 or older becoming a victim of serious violent crime are just one-seventieth the odds a black male teen faces. -- Your risk of being a victim does not increase as you make more money -- it actually declines. Although our poll shows that people with high incomes are about as afraid of crime as those who are less well off, your odds of being victimized are two to three times lower if you make $50,000 or more a year than if you earn less than $10,000. Ironically, the fact that crime rates are so low among the affluent may partly explain their outsized concern, according to Mark Cohen, a Vanderbilt University professor who specializes in the economics of crime. Says Cohen: "When you don't know what violence really looks like firsthand, you may have an exaggerated fear of it."
This article is not intended to soft-pedal crime or diminish the anguish it causes victims and relatives. But it does aim to counteract the widespread and near-hysterical fear of crime by debunking the common myths that our nationwide telephone poll documented. The poll (margin of error: plus or minus 3.1%) was conducted in March by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa. In each of the six sections that follow, we present the answers that a representative 1,002-adult sample of the U.S. population gave in our survey -- and then the truth of the matter. We also propose what society might do to prevent crime and, in the box on page 126, point out what you can do to make yourself more secure.
Is THE RATE OF VIOLENT CRIME AT AN ALL-TIME HIGH?
YOU SAID Yes...........88%
THE FACTS Sure, the number of violent crimes hit a new high of just over 6.6 million in 1992, the most recent year with complete statistics. But the U.S. population has gone up too. What really counts is your chance of becoming a victim, which is reflected in the overall violent-crime rate. And that rate, now 32.1 per 1,000 people per year, is actually down about 9% from its 1981 peak of 35.3, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Moreover, the rate of so-called serious violent crime -- rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- has fallen 16% from its 1974 high. As for murder, some 78% of those we polled believed that the homicide rate now stands at an all-time high. It's simply not true. The 1993 estimated rate of 9.5 murders per 100,000 people, which is based on FBI figures, remains 7% below the 10.2 peak back in 1980 -- and is even lower than the level reached in 1933 at the end of the Prohibition era. There is, however, reason for concern: The murder rate has climbed roughly 20% since 1985. Furthermore, a homicide rate of 9.5 -- more than 15 times that of England -- is nothing to brag about. One more chilling stat: Our nation's estimated 24,500 murder victims last year equal five times the average annual number of Americans killed in battle in the Vietnam War. The steely truth is that 5% to 10% of Americans -- including both poor black and white youths -- are becoming violent-crime victims at record rates. For 1991, the most recent statistics available, the homicide rate among black males ages 15 to 24 -- 159 per 100,000 -- was nine times higher than the 17 per 100,000 for whites. To put that staggering difference another way, if young white men were dying at the same rate as young black men, more than 23,000 of them would be killed this year alone -- nearly doubling the U.S. homicide rate and, presumably, spurring a public outcry for an end to the slaughter.
WHO IS MOST LIKELY, AND LEAST LIKELY, TO BE A VICTIM?
YOU SAID Most likely victim: Black male, 12-19 Least likely victim: White male, 35-64
THE FACTS While the largest segment of poll respondents -- 31% -- correctly identified black male teens as the most likely victims, they didn't have a clue about the risk other groups face. They greatly underestimated the threat to young black girls, for instance, and overestimated the likelihood of crime against young adult white women. When we asked people to name the group in greatest danger, black teenage girls ranked only sixth; actually, those girls are the second most likely to be victimized, following black male teens, out of 16 demographic groups we tracked (see the chart above). White women ages 20 to 34 were the third most popular choice, though these women actually rank ninth. Whites were the main source of that error, by the way. Some 11% of them named young white women as a high-risk group, vs. only 1.5% of blacks. Our poll respondents were also off the mark in identifying the least likely victims. Only 7% chose the correct answer: white women 65 and over, whose victimization rate of roughly one per 1,000 makes them easily the safest of all. One reason: They're far more careful than younger people about avoiding dangerous situations. The group that our poll identified as safest -- white men ages 35 to 64 -- are nearly eight times more likely to be attacked than elderly white women. Such confusion isn't surprising. Criminologists point out that the most atypical crimes -- such as vicious attacks on young suburban mothers or defenseless older women -- tend to make news. Bombarded by splashy press and TV images of these unusual victims, the public naturally gets false ideas about who is actually most often at risk.
People also concluded -- wrongly -- that the largest metropolitan areas are the most crime-ridden; but as the box on page 121 explains, medium-size cities and their suburbs can be more dangerous than the corresponding parts of urban behemoths. Crime rates may vary widely among cities of similar size, though, as our listing at right demonstrates. Example: Little Rock, with a population of 176,000, is America's fifth most dangerous city out of the 187 we examined, while Madison, Wis., with 202,000, is the eighth safest. That's because there are more crucial indicators of local crime than a city's size. The rate of violence tends to be higher, for instance, in places with larger minority populations (36% in Little Rock vs. Madison's 11%) and a concentration of single-female households with children under 18 (9% in the Arkansas capital vs. 5% in Madison). This is not to say that skin color or family status breeds crime; rather, most criminologists believe these are proxies for root problems such as the level of poverty and dysfunctional families. Keep in mind also that your chances of becoming a victim change dramatically as you move around a city. Stop by a convenience store late some night in a crime-prone neighborhood and your odds of getting hit are the same as for anyone else shopping there. Says Robert Figlio, a University of California- Riverside sociology professor and a founder of Cap Index, a Valley Forge, Pa. company that specializes in predicting local crime rates: "It's where you are even more than who you are that determines whether you will be a victim."
WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO BE VICTIMIZED BY A STRANGER: A MAN OR A WOMAN?
YOU SAID A woman...........82% A man...............14%
THE FACTS The opposite is true. Men are roughly twice as likely as women to be attacked by strangers. Women, on the other hand, are five times more likely than men to suffer at the hands of someone intimate with or related to them. Worse, a woman victim is twice as likely to be injured -- 59% vs. 27% -- if her assailant is a spouse, ex-spouse or boyfriend rather than a stranger. (The major exception is rape; there, the chance of injury is greater -- 60% vs. 43% -- in the four out of 10 rapes committed by unknown offenders.) While the rate of serious violent crime against women (10.9 per 1,000) is down 11% from its 1981 peak of 12.3, simple assaults against women -- attacks without a weapon that don't cause severe injury -- are at an all-time high of 15 per 1,000. Experts blame the rising number of simple assaults against women on family violence. The fact that many men batter their wives, ex-wives or girlfriends may explain why 84% of the women we polled said they worry about becoming a victim, vs. 68% of men. "Women are scared," says American University criminologist James Lynch, "because the place where they're most vulnerable is where we all ought to feel safest -- at home."
WHO COMMITS THE MOST CRIMES -- WHITES, BLACKS OR OTHER MINORITIES?
YOU SAID Blacks.........54%
THE FACTS Blacks, who represent just 12.5% of the U.S. population, account for a disproportionate share of violent crime. Still, the fact remains that whites commit more such crimes -- 54% vs. 45% for blacks, according to FBI arrest statistics. The numbers also vary widely depending on the crime, with blacks responsible for more murders and robberies (55% and 61% of these crimes, respectively) and whites committing more rapes and aggravated assaults (56% and 60%). The proportions also change with location: In the suburbs, whites commit 65% of the crime and blacks only 34%. In the cities, whites hold a thin 50% to 49% edge. Our respondents do know one thing. Nearly 44% said 15- to 19-year-olds commit the most violent crimes, and that's true. In fact, federal statistics paint a grim -- and worsening -- portrait of violence by American teens. According to the FBI, 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for 22% of the 641,250 arrests for violent crime in 1992, more than any other five-year age group and more than the total for all age groups from 35 up. Moreover, the level of violence among teens in this age group has soared in recent years. Between 1985 and 1992, for example, the murder arrest rate for 18-year-olds more than doubled to 52 per 100,000, pushing it to five times the national average. Today, the most likely person to commit murder in the U.S. is an 18-year-old male.
WHEN A WHITE PERSON IS A VICTIM, WHO IS THE MOST LIKELY OFFENDER?
YOU SAID A nonwhite person..........49%
WHAT ABOUT WHEN A BLACK IS A VIOLENT-CRIME VICTIM?
YOU SAID A black person..............69%
THE FACTS Our poll shows that 49% of Americans believe that whites are preyed on more often by nonwhite criminals who are either black (20%) or members of another racial minority (29%), rather than by other whites (26%). Another 21% said the chances were equal of the criminals being white or black. In fact, blacks and whites are most often victimized by someone of their own race. For example, of the 5.1 million violent crimes with white victims in 1992, the perpetrator was white 66% of the time and black only 21%. And in the 1.1 million crimes with black victims, the criminal was black 86% of the time and white 7%. (The remaining percentages involved incidents where the race was neither black nor white or unknown or where the assailants included both blacks and whites.) The bottom line: While a white person is far more likely to be victimized by a black than the other way around (21% vs. 7%), the chances are three times as great that a white person will be victimized by another white than by a black. The exception here is robbery. Whites are held up by blacks 49% of the time and by whites only 37%. Still, though violent crime is predominantly white on white or black on black, it is also true that black criminals commit more crimes against white victims (nearly 1.1 million in 1992) than they do against blacks (just under 1 million). Be careful about drawing conclusions from those figures, though. BJS statistician Patsy Klaus points out that because whites outnumber blacks nearly 7 to 1, there are simply many more white targets around.
WHAT PERCENT OF VIOLENT CRIMES INVOLVE GUNS?
YOU SAID 41% to 80% (the most common answer)
THE FACTS Considering the attention that pro- and anti-gun lobbies receive in the press, it's not surprising that most of us have an inflated idea of how often criminals use firearms. Although 40% of U.S. households now own a gun, FBI stats indicate that guns figure in only 31% of violent crimes. That's up from the low of 26% in 1988, yet below the peak of 32% in the early '80s. Still, the weapon of choice is the handgun; it is used in an estimated 80% of crimes that involve guns. No one has solid statistics on the use of military-type assault weapons, but experts believe they are used in less than 2% of all violent crimes. More alarming to criminologists is the fact that so many teenagers are arming themselves. The FBI says the number of people under age 18 arrested for carrying or owning a weapon jumped 106% between 1983 and 1992, compared with a 14% increase in arrests for those 18 and older. Even more frightening, many kids don't mind pulling the trigger. A 1991 Justice Department survey of predominantly minority male high schoolers in 10 high-crime areas found that 10% of the students agreed it was acceptable to shoot someone "if that is what it takes to get something you want," and 28% believed it was okay to shoot a person "who hurts or insults you." The result: Teenage robberies or assaults that once resulted in beatings are now more likely to end in lethal shootings. Many criminologists believe drug pushers, who often carry guns, are largely responsible for the arms race. "Kids see their friends and enemies with guns, and they want them too for protection," says Carnegie Mellon university criminologist Alfred Blumstein. "Gun ownership is a communicable disease." How can society lower the level of violence? Unfortunately, the pending crime law won't do much, according to virtually every criminologist we interviewed. They hold that the law, which will provide more police, more prisons and tougher sentences, fails to address adequately the fact that we grow criminals faster than we can arrest and jail them. Four more promising suggestions to curb violence: 1. Target additional police to high-crime areas. The crime legislation is likely to put 100,000 more police on the streets over the next five years at a cost of $9 billion. Unfortunately, that sounds more impressive than it is. After factoring in off-hours, sick days, vacation time and the like, criminologist David Bayley of the State University of New York at Albany estimates that the net increase in manpower at any given moment will be a mere 10,000 officers. Worse yet, the law does not make any effort to channel these officers to high-crime areas; any of the nation's 17,360 police and sheriff's departments can apply for reinforcements. By the time the new recruits are spread around, says Bayley, "you won't notice the difference and neither will the criminals." The only way these recruits will have much impact is if they're assigned to inner-city neighborhoods where crime is rampant. 2. Accept that some dangerous teens and young adults must be put away for a long, long time. While simplistic approaches like "three strikes, you're out" sound good, tying a life prison sentence to any particular number of crimes is too formulaic to work. Criminologists do believe, however, that judges should have discretion to take truly dangerous and irredeemable violent criminals out of circulation until they're no longer a threat. "If you're dealing with kids who were led astray, treat them as juveniles and try to reshape them," says Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon. "But kids who are clearly real menaces and lack self-control should be put away till they're in their fifties." 3. Get guns out of the hands of teenagers. We might get more bang for our gun- control buck, so to speak, by homing in on armed teens -- whose numbers are growing rapidly -- rather than society at large. UCLA public policy professor James Q. Wilson advocates encouraging cops to stop and frisk people who they reasonably suspect are armed -- and confiscate the gun if it is illegal. 4. Stop producing violent criminals. No level of gun control or sterner punishment can change the fact that we've allowed our inner cities to become "hothouses for growing violent people," in the words of Philip Heymann, the former deputy U.S. attorney general who quit in February after a disagreement with the Clinton Administration's crime-fighting policies. He and others argue that our real enemies are the poverty and despair that nurture crime. A few programs take a step in the right direction, such as the $525 million job plan in the House crime bill aimed at kids in high-crime areas. But initiatives like these must be combined with efforts to strengthen families and, specifically, to discourage unwed teens and young adults from producing children they can neither afford nor control. Today, nearly 45% of black babies and 14% of white infants are born to unwed mothers under age 25. MONEY's own crime analysis confirms what criminologists have been saying for years: Cities with the largest presence of homes headed by single women have the highest crime rates. Until the U.S. finds effective ways to promote two- parent households and to help schools and communities teach values to children who aren't properly supervised at home, we won't be able to replace today's rampant fear of crime with a renewed sense of personal security.
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Sources: Figures from Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey, 1992 Charts by Nigel Holmes CAPTION: Violent crime is down for most people. . .but not for black teens. The serious-violent-crime rate for the U.S. overall stands roughly 16% below its peak level in the early '70s, as shown in red. Certain groups have seen even steeper declines. For example, the annual victimization rate for white 50- to 64-year-olds of 4.4 per 1,000 has fallen 35% from its peak in 1975. For blacks ages 16 to 19, however (far right), crime rates have zoomed to all-time highs. Their victimization rate has jumped 315% since 1986. It's now nearly seven times the nationwide rate.
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics Charts by Nigel Holmes CAPTION: How likely are you to be a victim of violent crime? The answer: Your odds vary dramatically depending on your age, sex and race. Younger people, on average, are assaulted more often than older ones, men more often than women, and blacks more often than whites. Most at risk: a black male teen, who is nearly 10 times likelier to be a victim than an adult white man. In fact, with few exceptions, blacks are two to three times as likely to suffer a violent crime as their white counterparts. Safest of all are white women ages 65 and over, who, ironically, tend to be among the most frightened of crime. Their annual rate is just 1.2 per 1,000, 92% less than the U.S. average.
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Sources: FBI, population data from Claritas Inc. CAPTION: Safest city: Irvine, Calif.; the most dangerous: Atlanta California has six of the 15 U.S. cities with the lowest violent-crime rates among the 187 places with populations above 100,000, according to the FBI. New York City had the most crimes but the 22nd highest crime rate.
CHART: NOT AVAILABLE CREDIT: Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey CAPTION: Big-city suburbs offer the lowest crime rates For all the talk about crime in the cities, you probably think that the biggest U.S. cities are the places where you're most likely to be attacked. Wrong. As our table shows, there is little difference between the violent- crime rate of large and medium-size cities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey. What's more, cities in metro areas with populations of 1 million or more are actually a tad safer than those in places with 500,000 to 999,999 people. And get this: The safest U.S. suburbs are the ones near the largest metro areas. Their victimization rate is 19% and 28% lower, respectively, than the suburban crime rates in metro areas with populations between 250,000 and 999,999. One possible reason: Burbs in giant cities are farther away from violence-prone inner-city neighborhoods.