Crime in the United States

American Public Opinion About Crime in the United States

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

by Joseph Carroll

The recent high-focus news coverage of the shooting rampages in Atlanta and Brookfield, Wisconsin, has focused attention once again on crime in the United States. It is unclear at this point whether these events will increase Americans' worries about crime, but a review of Gallup Poll data on crime shows that these worries have actually been on the decline in recent years.

How Serious an Issue Is Crime?

Roughly 4 in 10 Americans interviewed as part of Gallup's annual update on crime, conducted most recently in mid-October 2004, describe the problem of crime in the United States as either extremely (13%) or very serious (29%). This is down from 54% in 2003 and from 60% in 2000 who described the crime situation as extremely or very serious.

Americans are much more positive about the crime situation in their local communities than they are about crime nationally. Only 8% of Americans describe crime in the areas where they live as extremely or very serious. Six in 10 adults say crime in their areas is not too or not at all serious. The perceived level of seriousness of local crime is also down slightly this year, from 11% extremely or very serious in 2003 and 12% in 2000.

More Crime, or Less?

A slight majority of Americans, 53%, say there is more crime in the United States now than there was a year ago. Twenty-eight percent say there is less crime now, and 14% say the crime level is roughly the same.

Although a majority of Americans say there is more crime now than there was a year ago, an analysis of historical responses to this question indicates that current attitudes are actually more positive than those measured in recent years. In 2002, 62% of Americans said there was more crime in the United States than the year before, and in 2003, 60% said this. The most recent results are, however, higher than Gallup found in 2000 and 2001, when fewer than half of Americans said there was more crime. In 1989, when Gallup first asked this question, 84% said there was more crime in the United States at that time than there had been the preceding year.

Gallup also asks Americans about perceived changes in the crime levels of their local areas. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans (37%) believe there is more crime in their areas than there was a year ago, while the same percentage say there is less crime. These results have shown only slight variation over the past few years.

Afraid to Walk Alone at Night?

One question on crime for which Gallup has long-standing trends asks Americans, "Is there any area near where you live -- that is, within a mile -- where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?"

About one in three Americans (32%) say yes, there is an area near their home where they are afraid to walk alone at night. This sentiment is down slightly over the past few years. Since Gallup started asking this question in 1965, results have ranged from 30% in 2001 (about a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks) to 48% in the early 1980s.

Americans who are most likely to answer this question affirmatively include those living in urban areas (49%), those earning less than $30,000 per year (48%), women (43%), nonwhites (42%), and those aged 65 and older (42%).

Most Important Problem

In Gallup's most recent survey, conducted March 7-10, only 2% of Americans say crime is the most important problem facing the country. In contrast, at other times, crime has been the single most important problem in the public's eyes. For example, 49% mentioned crime as the top problem in January 1994.

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