Crime – Getting Worse?

If you listened to the various TV and radio vox-pops over the last few days, following the tragic murders in East Wall, Howth and Ranelagh, and even Dick Roche’s hold up in Wicklow, you’d think the murder rate was soaring and the country was going to pot.

But what’s the real situation?

In reality, the murder rate in 2008 is significantlydown on 2007.  In 2007 there were, as best as I can tell, 78 murders recorded by the Gardaí.  In 2008 to date (and it’s now past halfway through December), there have been just 46 murders.  Allowing for the year’s trend to continue for the rest of December (let’s hope it doesn’t, of course), that will still result in a 40% decrease in murders year-on-year.  So why the hysteria?

Creative Commons (by freefotouk)

Creative Commons (by freefotouk)

The media have a lot to do with it (update: it was amusing to listen to Tom Brady of the Irish Independent on Morning Ireland on Thursday talking at length during an interview about the Howth murder about how overbearing media coverage of murders was actually responsible for the perception – what’s your job again, Tom?).  The massive amounts of print and radio coverage (TV has less time) of murders and other violent crime puts the actual statistics in the shade.

People hear about crime and particularly violent crime far more often, and in far more gruesome detail, than they do about more ‘normal’ threats, such as car crashes.  Car crashes have become ‘old news’, so to speak.

Older people, in particular, and other vulnerable members of society are being led to believe that every group of young people is a threat.  They’re told over and over again that they’re under threat, so they believe it.

We’re all guilty of misanalysing risk.  When it comes to the safety of children, in particular, people vastly over estimate the risks involved in various threats.  How many child abductions have there been in Ireland in the past ten years where the abductor and abductee were unrelated?  One – and it’s arguable whether there was actually an abduction in that case.  And yet parents won’t let their children play outside their homes.  Certainly won’t let them wander alone out of sight of the house, and many won’t even allow their children walk to school.  Bruce Schneier has written about this, and there was a good piece on the BBC website about it too.

To drill down to just one key fact – in 1970, the average British girl was allowed to roam 840m from her home unsupervised.  By 1997, that was down to 280m.  Today, it’s likely to be as far as the doorstep.  Risk has actually decreased in that time, but people’s perception is that the risk has increased dramatically.

Yes, one crime is too many.  But we have less crime today than we have had in decades.  Let’s get some perspective, people.  And I’m looking at you, journalists, to lead the charge.

This was written on Tuesday, and updated on Thursday – so apologies if 20 people were murdered on Friday morning before it was published and all my stats are wrong.  I somehow doubt it, though.


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