The public often perceives crimes as on the rise even when the figures do not always confirm this. But whether or not crimes are actually rising, law enforcement authorities are constantly under pressure to close the public safety gap – often with insufficient resources.

Americans’ belief that there is more crime in their local area than there was a year ago has reached a 50-year high, according to a survey in October by polling company Gallup. The survey found that 56% of U.S. adults reported an increase in crime where they live.

That figure is 5% higher than the year-earlier figure, and the highest by two points in Gallup’s crime trend surveys going back to 1972. Just 28% of respondents feel there is less local crime, according to the October survey, while only 14% think the level has stayed the same.

Public perceptions of an increase in crime at the national level have also increased since 2021, with 78% saying there is now more crime, which is the same as the 2020 figure.

Although COVID is largely behind us, public services that helped keep members of the public safe, such as policing and addiction treatment programs, are still feeling the effects – and that leads to widespread public perceptions that crime rates are much higher than they might actually be.

The Reasons for Rising Crime

Crime obviously moves in line with widespread political, social, and economic changes. One current factor could well be the surging inflation rate. How does inflation impact crime? Higher prices lead some people to a state of desperation which can cause them to steal goods.

Dramatic rises in prices also cause some people to seek cheaper, and maybe stolen goods, at various gray markets. This increased demand for stolen goods encourages more cases of theft and robbery, thus leading to more public dissatisfaction with the state of law and order.

Falling standards of living and people not having the money to buy the items they previously enjoyed can lead to a loss of faith and belief in governmental and other institutions, such as the police. One outcome can be an increase in crime and an escalation in crimes – for example, robberies getting out of hand and turning into murders.

Moreover, the spikes in murders and shootings seen since the start of the pandemic may have led law enforcement to move resources away from nonviolent crimes, with the result being that these crimes are not being dealt with. For the public, this is often seen as a lack of policing and a feeling that public safety levels are declining.

Statistics Can Be Misleading

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, which conducts annual surveys of crime rates, reports that there was no increase in the U.S. violent crime rate last year. There were 16.5 violent crimes for every 1,000 people aged 12 and above in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available which was statistically unchanged from 2020. It was also lower than pre-pandemic levels and significantly below the rates recorded in the 1990s.

Crime statistics are notoriously difficult to measure for several reasons. What is meant by crime, which period of time is it being compared to, and what is the location being examined are three critical questions that need to be addressed, says Justin Nix, Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska Omaha.

The public debate about crime often refers to the most serious, such as homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, and arson. Each month, state and local police departments pass on their crime numbers and send the data to the FBI to be added to its annual Uniform Crime Report.

One problem is that less than half of all instances that could be regarded as crimes are reported to the police in the first place. Secondly, police departments are not obliged to send information about crimes to the FBI. As a result, crime statistics are based on whichever crimes are reported by the approximately 17,000 police departments.

Last year, the FBI asked for more detailed information about crimes but not all law enforcement bodies did so. While agencies in some states were meticulous in providing information, there were agencies in other states that failed to provide comprehensive statistics. As a result, crime statistics are skewed.

There are also issues relating to setting a benchmark for crimes. Homicides have risen over the last couple of years, but in the longer term, the numbers are down dramatically. Meanwhile, robberies have been trending downwards for 30 years. Then there is the issue of lagging statistics with the FBI, for example, which publishes its previous year’s crime report towards the end of the current year.

Media coverage could affect voters’ perceptions about violent crime, and some voters could be reacting to conditions in their own communities rather than at the national level since violent crime is heavily localized.

Conclusions

Whatever the reasons for the public’s views on crime, and as we have seen there are many, law enforcement agencies must be committed to showing that they are working to close the public safety gap.

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