Fear of violence outstrips statistics Crime experienced by only 5 percent

October 13, 1993|By Christian Science Monitor

BOSTON -- True or false?

One: Americans live in a violent society, and one that is becoming ever more so.

Two: You have never experienced violent crime, and few, if any, of your family members, friends, or acquaintances have been the victims of homicide, assault, robbery, or rape.

The typical resident of the United States would answer -- somewhat paradoxically -- true and true.

"People's perceptions are out of sync with the data. They see our society as much more violent than it really is," says Charles Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo. "Most people lead violence-free lives."

According to reports published annually by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Justice's Bureau of Judicial Statistics (BJS), the probability that the average person in the United States will have a violent encounter with a criminal is small.

Only 5 percent of American households experienced violent crime in 1992, BJS reported last month. And FBI statistics show that in 1992 just 758 violent crimes were reported to police per 100,000 inhabitants of the United States.

In both reports, violent crime relative to the U.S. population dropped slightly between 1991 and 1992.

Scholars agree on a major cause for the disparity between people's fear of violent crime and the actual incidence of violence.

"Our sense of safety is influenced more by the media than by statistics," says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "Even if we reduced the crime rate enormously, there would still be plenty of sensational crimes for the 11 o'clock news."

"We do live in a violent society -- more than at any time in America's past," Dr. Ewing says. "But violent crime is statistically insignificant, and the rate has been relatively stable in recent years." Uninformed fear of violence, some scholars say, undermines support for long-range solutions to crime -- targeted at ameliorating economic and social causes of violence.

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