That “Perception of the Crime Rate Dropping” Perception Thing: One Statistic That Would Count

It is good to see politicians in Atlanta responding to (as opposed to studiously ignoring, or denying) the crime crisis.  But now that we’ve gotten their attention (no small accomplishment), how does the city really move forward to make residents safe?

The Atlanta Police Department has a fascinating series of charts on their website, showing fifty years of statistics for various crimes in the city.  Go to this page and click on “Part I Crime: A Fifty Year Retrospective.”   Immediately, what jumps out is that crime is down since that horrible time in the early 1990’s, when crack cocaine was burning a fat fuse through certain neighborhoods — especially the housing projects.  If you compare 1989 to 2009, it is easy to say, yes, crime in the city limits is not as bad now as it was then.

But numbers are not the whole story.  Sometimes, they are not even a substantial portion of the story.  My neighborhood in southeast Atlanta was a safer place in 1997 than it was in 2007, when I moved away.  In 1997, I didn’t worry about walking my dogs after dark.  In 2007, I worried about walking them (well, him) in daylight.  I even worried about leaving the dog alone in the house when I took the car and went to the store.  Was it my “perception” of danger that had changed?  Did I simply grow more paranoid as the neighborhood actually grew safer, as it appears to have done, if you just look at the official, city-wide statistics?

No.  The neighborhood became less safe.  Starting around 2003, there were more break-ins, and attempted break-ins, and violent incidents, and threats of violence, a situation that worsened considerably after 2005.

I should note this was not merely a case of the internet making it easier for people to hear about crimes that had already happened, for the neighborhood’s long-standing nosy-old-lady-on-the-porch-net certainly rivaled the crude electronic social networking technologies of today.

No, crime grew worse, more omnipresent and more threatening.  One reason this is not clearly reflected in recent statistics is because people started spending vast amounts of time and money on video cameras, motion detectors, alarms, gated housing, and private security patrols.  The political class took the taxpayers for suckers, and so the taxpayers were forced to take it upon themselves (paying twice) to prevent crime.

Such privately-funded crime-fighting efforts probably account for much of the positive difference between crime rates today and the rates from five or eight years ago.

I would like to see a statistic comparing the number of “suspicious activity” calls made to the police in 2000 and 2007 from different precincts in the city.  That statistic would offer a better sense of the real prevalence of criminal activity, though it still would not offer a complete picture of crime.  People don’t call 911 every time they chase a suspicious teen from their neighbor’s porch or yell at some guy peering into car doors.

Yet those are the incidents that wear away at one’s sense of safety, day-in and day-out.

Make that actual safety, not just the sense of it.  People are not fools and will not be taken for fools anymore.  That message appears to have stuck.  Now, where does Atlanta go from here?


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