Urban Wire Ten popular crime myths
John Roman
Display Date

This is the first in a week of blogs addressing crime in America in 2012. According to a recent Gallup poll, crime ranks as the 33rd most important issue facing America today. Yet, majorities of Americans report being fearful of criminal victimization. One barrier to the crime problem, addressed Monday, is that much of what the public has been told about crime in the popular media is not true. Tuesday we address a related problem: ‘expert’ analysis that misleads. Wednesday we talk about Stand Your Ground laws and show that more rigorous analysis can uncover bad policies. Thursday and Friday we discuss innovative new ways crime could be reduced. Saturday we tackle the biggest problem (and offer a solution) —that there is no coherent national strategy to combat crime.

Today: ten popular crime myths and the true story behind them:

  • Myth: 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. Fact: if you are under 40, on average you are safer now than you have ever been.
  • Myth: 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, DC. Last year, there were 82 homicides in PG (down 40%) and 132 in DC (down almost 75%).
  • Myth: 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: 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 different from the evidence collector.
  • Myth: most crimes are solved by fingerprints and DNA. Fact: less than one percent of all serious crimes are solved by DNA and fingerprints do only slightly better.
  • Myth: fingerprints can definitively match a person to a crime scene. Fact: fingerprint matches are entirely subjective and we have no idea whether the cliché that all fingerprints are unique is actually true.
  • Myth: 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 155 children were kidnapped by strangers, thus a child is about 5 times more likely to drown than be kidnapped.
  • Myth: 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 year before voluntarily leaving, and commit as many crimes against their fellow gang members as others.
  • Myth: serial killers account for many murder victims. Fact: out of almost 15,000 homicides in 2010, perhaps one percent were victims of a serial killer, while 4 times as many were victims of infanticide.
  • Myth: 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.

Tomorrow: how popular crime arguments can be simple, intuitive and wrong


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Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Crime and justice analytics Policing and community safety
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center
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