The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 12 | December 2008

Targeting the Fear of Crime

Target Fear of crime was at or near the top of the list of police priorities in the United States more than 2 decades ago in the early 1980s (Taft, 1986). Many police executives had accepted the premise that reducing fear of crime was an important objective, and several promising practices had been identified. This situation helped spur the development of community policing in the 1980s and 1990s but, paradoxically, the importance of fear of crime within the explicit missions of most police departments seemed to recede even as community policing expanded. More recently, however, the gap between falling crime rates and stable or even increasing levels of fear (what some call the reassurance gap) has led to renewed interest among police in strategies for reducing fear of crime. Also, fear of terrorism arose in America post-9/11, making fear reduction even more salient for local, state, and national officials.

Arguably, fear reduction (making people feel safer) should be included among the explicit components of the modern police mission. This position is based on the following interrelated assumptions:

Why Target Fear?

Because fear of crime is just a feeling, some might wonder why it is important, particularly as a target for police action. Certainly, crime itself must be more important than mere feelings about crime? And even if fear of crime is of some importance, what can police be expected to do about it?

One expert who has studied fear of crime for more than 2 decades is Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University. He has also studied and evaluated police strategies, including Chicago’s experiment with community policing beginning in 1993. He makes the case for paying attention to fear of crime as follows (2006: 255):

Fear of crime is a social and political fact with concrete consequences for big-city life. The costs of fear are both individual and collective. Fear can confine people to their homes, and it undermines their trust in their neighbors and, especially, in their neighbors’ children. Fear is a key “quality of life” issue for many people. Research also indicates that concern about crime has bad consequences for the neighborhoods in which we live. Fear leads to withdrawal from public life, and it undermines informal and organized efforts by the community to control crime and delinquency. It is difficult to organize activities in neighborhoods where people fear their own neighbors. Fear undermines the value of residential property and thus the willingness of owners to maintain it properly. When customers – and even employees – fear entering a commercial area, the viability of businesses located there is threatened.

Most significant, in Chicago as elsewhere, fear of crime has been one of the most important factors driving residents to the suburbs, encouraging race and class segregation and undermining the political importance of American cities.

Interestingly, Skogan found in Chicago that 84 percent of police officers who participated directly in community policing activities agreed with the statement “lowering citizens’ fear of crime should be just as high a priority for this department as cutting the crime rate” (p. 237).

National surveys verify the public’s concern about crime and fear of crime (Saad, 2006). In 2006, 37 percent of Americans said there was an area within a mile of their home where they would be afraid to walk alone at night. This measure had peaked at 48 percent in 1982, then gradually fell to 30 percent in 2001 before beginning to go back up. Consistent with this trend in fear of crime, 68 percent of Americans believed there was more crime in the U.S. in 2006 than the year before, and 51 percent believed that crime in their local areas had increased during the past year. Both measures of the perceived level of crime have increased since 2001.

Figure 1: Crime Perceptions vs. Violent Crime Trend
Source: Saad, Lydia. "Worry About Crime Remains at Last Year's
Elevated Levels." Gallup News Service, 2006.

Figure 2: Is there more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, or less?
Source: Saad, Lydia. "Worry About Crime Remains at Last Year's
Elevated Levels." Gallup News Service, 2006.

These increases in fear of crime and perceived levels of crime as measured by Gallup Polls between 2001 and 2006 are at odds with the trend in crime since 2001 as measured by either personal victimization (Rennison, 2002; Catalano, 2006) or reported crime (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002; 2007):

This kind of disconnect between the public’s perceptions and actual levels of crime is not new or even surprising, but it has certainly has frustrated law enforcement officials and political leaders during the past decade, when crime drops have not been matched by drops in fear of crime.

Figure 3:Victimization Rates for Violent Crime and Property Crime, 1993-2005. Source: Catalano, Shannan. Criminal Victimization 2005. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006.

Recognizing this disconnect and the importance of the fear of crime in public safety efforts, the COPS Office has funded a project to examine promising fear reduction strategies that law enforcement agencies are using. This project will result in a guidebook detailing several of these strategies that other jurisdictions may wish to consider implementing as part of their fear reduction efforts. The guidebook will be released in early 2009 and will be available online and in hard copy from the COPS Office web site:


Catalano, Shannan. Criminal Victimization 2005. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics,

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2001. Washington, D.C.: Federal bureau of Investigation, 2002.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 2006. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2007.

Rennison, Callie. Criminal Victimization 2001: Changes 2000-01 With Trends 1993– 2001. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002.

Saad, Lydia. “Worry About Crime Remains at Last Year’s Elevated Levels.” Gallup News Servic, 2006. Last-Years-Elevated-Levels.aspx#1.

Skogan, Wesley. Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Taft, Philip. Fighting Fear: The Baltimore County C.O.P.E. Project. Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum, 1986.

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