Do Talk, Anxiety and Discussion Define a Crime Wave?

by November 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm 2,051 3 Comments

"Borderstan""Borderstan Accident""16th Street NW"

What constitutes a crime wave? A rise in one type of crime? A temporary spike? Is it how we talk about it and feel about a particular crime pattern? (Borderstan file photo)

Borderstan welcomes Maggie Barron to its list of contributors. She will be writing about numerous topics of interest that catch her eye here in Borderstan. She’s interested in many things, particularly the way cities work — or don’t — and why.

From Maggie Barron. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @maggiebarron.

At the end of October, a friend told me that her house near U Street had been broken into. She was shocked, and even more so when police told her about several other recent break-ins nearby. “I never heard anything about those,” she said. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

We turned to the trusty internet, where it appeared that our entire neighborhood was in the midst of a crime wave. October crime in Police Service Area (PSA) 305 (covering the U Street area around 11th to 13th Streets NW), was at its highest level since the U Street Neighborhood Association started keeping track three years ago.

October crime was also up in Logan Circle, and there had been a rise in smash and grabs around 15th Street NW. Even DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters, “October is always one of our more challenging months.” My friend’s break-in just seemed to be part of a larger trend.

Or is it? What constitutes a “wave?” I expected to find some sort of range – like, you know you’re in an official crime wave if crime rises X% over Y amount of time. But according to Vincent Sacco’s book “When Crime Waves,” it’s quaint of me to think crime waves only have to do with the amount of actual crime. It has to do with our perceptions, too. He writes:

“…we can tell by reading a variety of cues whether or not [a crime wave] is under way. There is more talk about crime, more anxiety, more discussion in the media, more worry about what is to be done.”

Talk – check. Anxiety – check. Discussion in media – check. Worry – check! Who needs spreadsheets or statistics? I am in a crime wave.

Of course, crime did go up in October, and people who experience crime first-hand do not simply “perceive” it. But for the rest of us, it’s important to be informed consumers of crime data.

In September, crime in PSA 305 was down 10% from the same time the previous year. This year so far, burglary is down 18%. Assault with a gun is down. Assault without a gun is up. Theft from an auto is up. Theft of an auto is down. I don’t have any idea what these trends mean, and none of it makes my friend feel any better about her break-in.

I ran this post by Cody Telep, this website’s new crime reporter, who recently wrote about Borderstan’s worst blocks for crime. He pointed out that the majority of Americans believe that crime is getting worse – even though the numbers show that it’s actually getting better. And, they’ve felt this way for most of the past decade, while crime rates have dropped or stabilized. Even so, he thinks that residents do recognize real, sustained changes in crime (be they drops or increases) over the long term. It’s the short term changes that can throw us for a loop.

We may cling to our data, but at the end of the day our awareness of and proximity to crimes determines our perceptions, rather than the hard numbers. So as the news of crime ebbs and flows, be sure to stay safe and keep a healthy skepticism.


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