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Fear of Crime in the United States: Avenues for Research and Policy

NCJ Number
Mark Warr
Date Published
39 pages
After assessing the state of knowledge regarding the fear of crime, this chapter considers whether public fear of crime can and ought to be controlled, as well as the moral and practical implications of doing so.
The discussion draws on the literatures of risk perception and risk communication, along with research on the etiology of fear and public beliefs about crime. In discussing the nature of fear, the author advises that fear of being harmed is present in virtually all animals and is essential to their survival; thus, fear is not intrinsically bad. Rather, as the author cautions, it is when fear is out of proportion to objective risk that it becomes dysfunctional. Further, fear encompasses not only fear for one's own personal safety ("personal fear"), but also fear for other individuals whose safety one values ("altruistic fear"). The author advises that research on the fear of crime has failed to collect systematic data on altruistic fear or even recognize its existence. A section of the chapter on the measurement of fear notes that fear of crime can be measured by soliciting self-reports from individuals or by monitoring physiological processes associated with fear; there is a pressing need to explore the uses of physiological measures of fear, because the payoff in knowledge is potentially great. Some of the questions that might be answered by using a continuous, unobtrusive measure of fear are listed. Other sections of the chapter focus on regulating public fear of crime, the fear of crime and the perceived seriousness of offenses, fear and cues to danger, the rationality of fear, the selling of fear, and the consequences of fear. The author concludes that most citizens have little scientific foundation for their beliefs about crime. In daily life, they are constantly confronted with information about crime from sources that may not appreciate nor care about the accuracy of that information and that may use crime to entertain, sell, advertise, exploit, or win votes. It is incumbent on criminal justice officials to provide the public with reliable information about crime, including information about the risk of victimization for various criminal offenses; the sources and likelihood of error in those estimates; the nature of victimization events; and, where known, the personal, social, and temporal/spatial characteristics that increase or reduce risk. 1 exhibit and 98 references