Murder Most Foul…Or Most Rare? Crime & Worry

Fear of crime: it’s on the rise. But violent crime is dropping. Why the disconnect?

We should feel safer. The FBI has been reporting reductions in violent crime for several years. The rate—which covers murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery, and assault—has dropped steadily, from 469 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2005 to 454.5 in 2008.

But if anything, we feel less safe. According to a Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who feel crime is rising nationally has generally increased, from 53% in 2004, to 68% in 2006, to 74% in October 2009. Gallup found similar results for our perception of local crime, with the percentage of Americans who believe there’s increased crime in their area rising from 37% in 2005 to 51% in 2009.

Easier and faster access to crime news likely accounts for some of the misperception. And we’ve become all too aware of crimes that barely existed in the US 20 years ago, such as identity theft and terrorism. Yet overall, crime statistics show that the chances of actually becoming a crime victim are relatively low: the odds a person 12 or older will be a victim of a personal crime (including violent crimes, robbery, and pickpocketing/purse snatching) in a year are 1 in 46.61, and the odds of being a victim of a violent crime are 1 in 48.36. The odds a household will be a victim of a property crime (including burglary, theft, and car theft) in a year are 1 in 6.83.

Here’s the scoop on some commonly feared crimes and the real odds of being a victim. (All real-crime odds are for a one-year period, so, naturally, your lifetime odds of victimhood increase as you continue to walk the Earth.)

Identity Theft:1 in 1.52 (66%) of us worry about this digital-age crime, and with good reason: the odds a household will be a victim of identity theft in a year are 1 in 18.22—over 5%.
Car Crimes:1 in 2.13 of us worry about our car being stolen or broken into. The actual odds of car theft in a year? Nationwide, just 1 in 187.3.
Sexual Assault:1 in 5.26 of us worry about this terrifying crime. 1 in 541.1 women actually become victims of rape or sexual assault in a year (1 in 1,008 people overall).
Murder: For this most final of all crimes, our worry seems egregiously out of proportion. 1 in 5.26 of us worry about being murdered, but the odds a person will be murdered in a year are just 1 in 18,690.
Of course, worry is often more psychological than logical; the sheer awfulness of crimes like rape and murder no doubt contribute to high levels of dread despite relatively low levels of victimhood. And your actual chances of becoming a crime victim depend on a range of factors, from where you live to how old you are to whether you hang out with nuns or drug dealers.

While it’s not productive to spend every waking moment worrying about crime, neither does it make sense to ignore it completely. Taking steps to prevent crime, like installing alarms, hiding valuables, and answering the front door with caution, don’t just reduce your chances of being a crime victim—according to a 2009 study at the London School of Economics, such measures can also alleviate the feeling that crime is impairing one’s quality of life.

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