John Sides looks at some Gallup data and comes up with a fascinating finding. In the 1990s, public perception of whether crime was getting better or worse largely tracked objective reality. But in the past decade that relationship has broken down (click on the image for a bigger picture):
For 1991-2001, perceptions line up nicely with reality. But in 2002-2008, a larger percentage of Americans perceived an increase in crime than one would expect, given the actual crime rate. It appears that 2009 will only continue this trend. A graph with the property crime rate would show a similar finding.
One can speculate about the reasons. September 11th seems an unlikely cause, especially of the increase since 2005. Local television news consumption affects certain beliefs about crime, according to this research by Frank Gilliam and Shanto Lyengar. But I don’t really think there’s been a massive uptick in local news consumption, or local news coverage of crime (which seems a perennial staple — if it bleeds it leads, etc.).
Speculating . . . speculating . . . I feel that since the end of the 1990s, crime has really fallen off the map as an official topic of public and political concern. That could mean that people are seeing less reporting of actual facts about the crime rate and coming to be more influenced by the “if it bleeds it leads” phenomenon. But I don’t know how you would test that hypothesis.