Fear of crime out of proportion

Despite all the crime news, crime is trending downwards

As I was considering crawling out of bed this morning at 6.30am, I heard screaming from somewhere down the hall. We live in an apartment building and at first I put it down to some early morning romance. A certain type of screaming at a very loud volume is commonplaceremarkably commonplace, in facton our floor. But the tone was different this time. There was a male and female voice and they were angry.

I was still half asleep, but after a few minutes I pulled on some trousers and opened the door. A hallway of firmly closed doors stared back at me. Suddenly the yelling stopped, saving me from making the decision I was agonising over. Should I intervene? How much violent shouting does a neighbour shrug off before the potential for physical violence demands some intervention?

Then I turned on the news and heard that the new annual crime statistics were out. Family violence up 29 percent. New Zealanders fearful. Politicians promising action and decrying their opponents.

The 11 percent increase in violent crime reported in the police statistics released yesterday seems to have the nation fretting that society stands on the brink of breakdown.

And it's true there's little to feel proud about in these statistics. Perhaps, if we believe the police argument that the increase is due to more reported crime, not more criminal offences, that's a positive. Perhaps we're calling the cops instead of assuming violence is just part of life. But no-one can really take pride in the fact there were over 58,761 violent offences reported in the year to June (138 per 10,000 people), compared to 50,644 (121 per 10,000 people) two years ago.

Having said that, our fear about violent crime and media coverage of it is well out of proportion to reality. We don't want fear of crime to so dominate our national conversation that we actually see danger when there isn't any, or to group-think our way into expecting, and therefore normalising, increased violence. So let's look at the numbers more closely.

Or at least, let's start by acknowledging the figures' limitations. They only tell us about reported crime. Perhaps more is happening that we don't know about, or perhaps we are more vigilant in reporting crime. We just don't know what we don't know.

When you come to the figures that are available, it's said that the per 10,000 people rate is the one to pay the most attention to. That adjusts for population growth. Total crime per 10,000 New Zealanders is down one percent. Hardly a reason for us to cower behind locked doors. That trend is in line with falling crime rates throughout the English-speaking world, and if you track crime figures back you'll see that they grew from the 1950s through until 1992, when they peaked. Crime rates have been falling ever since. You can talk about the unemployment and economic reforms going on at the time, the year after Ruth Richardson's "mother of all budgets". You can look at the percentage of young men around at that time, as crime tends to increase when there are more male 15-25 year-olds about. But if anyone really knew the one or two core reasons behind criminal behaviour, we'd have solved it years ago.

What we do know is that while people scream to crack down on criminalswhatever that meansNew Zealand is second only to the US in the number of citizens in prison per capita, despite the fact our crime rates are similar to Australia, Canada and Britain. Phil Goff even boasts that since Labour took office prison numbers are 70% higher than they were.

We also know that despite what people say about Counties Manukau, the total number of crimes there per 10,000 people was down two percent in the past year. Yes, violent crime was up 19% with over 9,000 attacks, but it was up 23% in Tasman. Maybe the small town New Zealand idyll isn't as bright as it seems. And just maybe South Auckland isn't about to explode into lawlessness any time soon, despite what you see on TV and hear on talk back. Point is, we shouldn't panic about single year figures. They always leap around. What matters are the long-term trends, and they suggest mild improvement, not a growing crime wave.

I rang psychologist and criminologist Gabrielle Maxwell of Victoria University this morning. She too fears that "we're talking it up" to an unhealthy degree. That's partly because of the media's appetite for crime news. Maxwell spent a fortnight measuring TV One and TV3 news recently. Hardly an exhaustive survey, but she found that 50% of the stories involved crime or death and destruction. On days that natural disasters and other spot news came along, criminal reporting fell away. But on quieter news days it was used to fill the gaps.

That backs up a 2002 thesis by Auckland University student Daniel Cook which found that the type of news that made the 6pm bulletin changed significantly when the government deregulated the broadcasting sector in the late 80s.

"The effects on news selection at One Network News were immediate and substantial. Political news halved between 1988 and 1989, while less serious news categories like human-interest, crime and disaster news increased."

Maxwell has gone back over murder statistics for 12 years. When she averaged them out in five year clumps, rather than simply report how they leap up and down from year to year, she found our murder rate has pretty much held steady. Murder rates, she notes, are one of the best statistical measures of actual social violence because nearly every murder is reported and almost 100% are solved.

If we want to do more to reduce violence, she says one of the best things we could do is demand more from our media. We can support schools more as they struggle to deal with violent students. Schools need more money or support staff so that they don't feel compelled to just expel troublesome students, teachers need more training, and every school should have a community liaison officer to work with families. Finally, she says, the old chestnut of violence in the entertainment media needs to be dealt with. While the media keeps the debate alive, she says, psychologists are almost universally agreed that children's increased exposure to violence has created the widespread impression that violence is normal, even heroic. She asks an interesting questionand I'd be interested in your thoughtswhy do we all seem to agree that it's wise to keep children well away from sexual acts in films and TV, but not violent acts?

So if we're more precise about these figures, we can reasonably say that violent crime has risen in the past two years. That's not good. But it's hardly a crimewave when it comes in the context of falling total crime rates and more crimes being solved.