The voice of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
November 1, 2013

The truth behind 10 popular crime myths

November 1, 2013

 On the same day as the Navy Yard mass killing, new FBI data showed that the violent crime rate declined in 2012 for the sixth year in a row.

Most Americans wouldn't believe it. Gallup has asked Americans in five out of the last six years whether they thought there was more crime in their area than the prior year. Each year, less than a third of respondents say that crime is going down. The sad juxtaposition of the mass murder and the release of crime data makes clear why there is such a disconnect, but the perception that America is getting more dangerous is not supported by the facts.

Here are 10 other popular crime myths and the true story behind them:

Myth #1: Crime is getting worse, if not in your neighborhood then certainly in the "bad parts" of town, which are much more dangerous than when you were a kid.

FactIf you are under 40, on average you are safer now than you have ever been.

Myth #2: Suburbs are safer than cities.

Fact: True, on average, but the trend is better for cities than suburbs. At the peak of the crime wave in 1991, there were 138 homicides in Prince George's County and 479 in Washington, D.C. Last year, there were 82 homicides in PG (down 40 percent) and 82 in D.C. (down almost 75 percent).

Myth #3: Criminal investigators have enormous data systems at their fingertips that track virtually everything about all of us.

Fact: Police do have access to lots of data, but typically use it to find a known suspect rather than identify an unknown suspect.

Myth #4: Forensic examiners (CSIs) investigate crimes, carry weapons, and can process complex crimes in minutes.

Fact: The typical piece of DNA collected from a crime scene takes months to process (if it is at all) and the civilian processing it is not aware of the facts of the crime.

Myth #5: Most crimes are solved by fingerprints and DNA.

FactLess than 1 percent of all serious crimes are solved by DNA, and fingerprints do only slightly better.

Myth #6: Fingerprints can definitively match a person to a crime scene.

FactFingerprint matches are entirely subjective and we have no idea whether the cliché that all fingerprints are unique is actually true.

Myth #7: There is an epidemic of children being kidnapped from their homes in the dead of night.

Fact: The FBI estimates that in 2008 a total of 115 children were kidnapped by strangers. A child is more than five times more likely to drown than be kidnapped.

Myth #8: There are two typical types of offenders:

  • One is the brilliant loner psychopath who commits serial crimes and can't be caught without the aid of large task forces, luck, and equally brilliant loner detectives.
  • Fact: Most criminals are far less educated, poorer, and sicker than the average American.
  • Type two is the ruthless, soulless gang-banger who can only be contained (but never defeated) by armies of police.
  • Fact: Gang members are typically teenagers, generally in a gang for about a yearbefore voluntarily leaving, and commit as many crimes against their fellow gang members as others.

Myth #9: Serial killers account for many murder victims.

Fact: Out of almost 15,000 homicides in 2010, perhaps 1 percent were victims of a serial killer, while four times as many were victims of infanticide.

Myth #10: There are a lot of adolescent predators on the loose.

Fact: At any given time, there are very few juveniles whose behavior has warranted a placement in secure confinement. In New York City, on any given day there are only about 250 youth in secure confinement.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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