Folks Still Think Crime Is a Top Problem, but Worry about It Less

When asked by Yankelovich Partners in early October about the most important problem facing the country today, 15 percent mentioned crime. Crime was the top problem in the poll, but the level of anxiety about crime (or anything else, for that matter) is unusually low.

There’s some evidence in other surveys that people are becoming aware of, or are willing to acknowledge, improvement in the crime picture. In 1989, when Gallup began asking whether there was more or less crime in the United States than a year ago, 84 percent said there was more, and only 5 percent said less. In late August, 64 percent said there was more crime, and 25 percent said less.

In May 1996, Louis Harris and Associates reported that 81 percent of the public believed that violent crime in the nation was increasing (63 percent of this group said it was increasing “a lot”), though, as Harris pointed out, the incidence of it is decreasing. Humphrey Taylor, president of Harris, puts the blame for the erroneous public impressions on the media. By 90 to 7 percent, the public says the media are more likely to report the bad news about crime than the good news.

Impressions about crime close to home are more encouraging than views about crime in the nation. In 1972, 51 percent told Gallup that there was more crime in their area, and 10 percent said less. In August, 46 percent said there was more crime, but 32 percent said there was less. In 1965, Gallup asked whether there was any area within a mile of where you live that you would be afraid to walk at night. In 1965, 34 percent said there was; in 1997, the number had edged upward to 38 percent.

So How Do You Explain All Those Car Phones?

In 1972, 83 percent told Gallup they felt safe and secure at home at night. In its August poll, that number was 90 percent.

In a June 1996 CBS News/New York Times poll, 44 percent said they had taken special precautions in the past year to protect themselves from crime, but 55 percent had not. When asked for examples of what they’d done, 15 percent volunteered that they had installed a house alarm, 9 percent said they stayed in at night, and 8 percent said they had bought or carried a gun. Seven percent said they had installed a car phone and separately that they locked their windows and doors.

In August 1996, Roper Starch Worldwide asked people directly whether they had done a number of different things to protect themselves from crime. They did not specify, as the CBS News/New York Times question did, things done in the past year. A third said they had bought extra locks for their doors.

But huge majorities (more than 70 percent) said they hadn’t really considered many of the things RSW mentioned, including participating in a neighborhood watch program; getting a dog, a car alarm, a cell phone, or a gun; moving; installing a security system; buying a device such as The Club; taking a course in self defense; putting up bars or grating; moving into a secure complex; or helping to arrange for a private security company for their neighborhood.

Gated Communities

In their new book Fortress America: Gated Communities in the US (Brookings Institution Press), Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Synder argue that as many as eight million Americans now live in gated communities. They segment the communities into lifestyle enclaves (retirement communities, new towns, country club developments), elite communities for the rich and famous, and security zones in urban and suburban areas to protect against crime. A survey by Roper Starch Worldwide sheds some light on the public’s interest in these new developments.

In August 1996, RSW asked whether people had heard about “so-called planned communities where the entire housing development is private, has its own roads, parks and services, and may also be designed for people of a certain age, interest or background.” Nearly six in ten had heard of planned communities (35 percent had not).

In a separate question, 27 percent said they would be interested in living in a planned community (assuming it was affordable), but two-thirds said that they were not that interested or not interested at all.

When asked about the possible advantages of a planned community, 54 percent (the top response) chose greater safety from crime, and 32 percent selected having a safe place for children and a stronger sense of community. As for the disadvantages, 41 percent chose less control over your property, and 35 percent selected both isolation from the outside world and restrictions on behavior of residents.

Guns at Home

In 1959, 49 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said they had a gun in the house, and 51 percent did not. In 1997, 42 percent said they had a gun, and 57 percent said they did not.

The GOP: Losing Its Advantage on Crime?

In the September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, the Republican party had a 6-point advantage (27 to 21 percent) on dealing with crime. This poll gives people the option of saying “Democrats,” “Republicans,” “neither,” or “both,” options many people choose. In nine questions asked since 1993, the GOP has usually led on this issue, though the numbers have bounced around a lot.

The ABC News/Washington Post and Gallup trends show more movement on the issue. In 1990, the GOP had a 12-point edge in the ABC/Post poll (43 to 31 percent); in August, the Democrats had a 4-point edge (38 to 34 percent).

In 1988, 40 percent told Gallup the Republicans would do a better job handling crime; 24 percent picked the Democrats. In October 1994, the numbers were 42 percent, Republicans; 40 percent, Democrats.

Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI.

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