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The Fear of Crime

AGM, Guildford
Age Concern

19 February 2001



Fear is both useful and inconvenient.  By and large, we try to inculcate it into the young and relieve it in older people.

What are most of us afraid of? Lions and snakes, yes: but possibly also spiders or a mouse? But I am sure nobody here has ever been harmed by either of those.

Fears are unpredictable and resistant to change.  Because each act of avoidance is rewarded, fears become self-perpetuating and not always matched to actual risk.  We can be more afraid of flying than riding in motor cars. Yet in this country, ten people a day are killed on the roads.

Fear of crime is like any other fear. It can be useful but can build up and become self-perpetuating, resistant to change and out of line with actual risk. One of the best ways of reducing fear is to take it seriously as an issue in its own right, try to understand it and so increase our ability to cope.  But how do we know when we have got our fear in proportion?

The facts: about fear of crime

Although the British Crime Survey shows that fear of crime has been reducing since 1994, there’s still a lot of it about.

In this country more than one person in three (44%) fears crime so much that it affects their quality of life. 12% of people in inner cities do not go out at night.

Most people (57%) worry about burglary and car crime. But fear of crime can be as much about relatively trivial nuisance, like stray dogs, as about serious crime.

Those who fear crime most are not the rich, but the poor, particularly those in social housing and inner cities; people from ethnic minorities;  people who feel vulnerable and fear the effect which a crime might have on them; those who worry about life in general, or about other people.  Women, particularly mothers, fear crime more than men – apart, predictably, from men worrying about their cars.

Then there are factors like the time of day; familiarity with places and people; lack of lighting; or seeing incivilities which we associate with crime – like rubbish, dog mess and inconsiderate driving.

Of all groups, the young fear crime the most: they are at one and the same time the most feared, the most victimised and the most fearful.  Young people go around in groups because parents tell them not to go out alone and being in a group is an important defence against both crime and the fear of crime.

Older people tend to feel less at risk, not least because they now adopt a less risky and more comfortable lifestyle – like not being out so late at night.

Nevertheless women over 60 are often afraid of crime.  They are more likely to be poorer, live alone, feel themselves to be frail and easy prey; unsure about how they would cope with a crime; and worry about life in general. They may have built up a feeling that crime has had an impact on their lives, even that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place.  It can all add up for many of them.

The facts: about crime

Fear of crime has been falling because crime itself is falling. Since 1997, overall crime has fallen by about 10%, burglaries by between 20 and 25% and car crime by about 15-20%. However, in some parts of the country, like London, crimes of violence have increased for instance as the result of youngsters robbing each other of the commodities valued by of youth, like mobile ‘phones.

CCTV reduces both crime and the fear of crime.  Street lighting and police foot patrols do not of themselves reduce crime: but both reduce the fear of crime. A large part of crime is committed in quite localised hotspots.  The households most at risk of burglary are those headed by someone aged 16-24.

As far as violence is concerned,  just 1-2% of victims (M or F) are over 60.  The vast majority of incidents involve 16-24 year old males, at or near pubs, in the late evening. Jacky Fleming got it right with her cartoon of a teenage girl musing “If men can’t be trusted on the streets at night … why aren’t THEY kept in?”

Because fear is heightened by the unknown, what people fear most is attack from strangers. A number of women experience fear of rape, from individuals rather than groups, often as a nagging sense that something awful could happen and this keeps them from doing things that they want, or at a time, or in a way that they would like. Older women in some urban areas can experience harassment which, without being necessarily dangerous, can be intimidating and humiliating.

Yet a statistically far bigger risk is at home and from people we know.  Most sex offences are committed by people known to the victim and two women a week are killed by their partners or ex-partners.  In terms of those injured or killed by crime, which is as good a measure as any of seriousness of offending, we should never forget that it is motorists who are the most dangerous offenders.

 What we can do

How, then, can we manage the fear of crime, particularly amongst older people?  On the one hand, we cannot overlook the fact that there are extremely unpleasant and serious offences in which, in 1-2% of occasions, older people are victims. On the other, for some, the fear of crime runs so much deeper than the objective risk that it restricts and limits their lives.

First, we can try to be clear about which crimes we most fear and make sure that we are taking reasonable precautions.

Secondly, seeing that there is something we can do to protect ourselves against crime should make us feel less vulnerable and more able to cope.

Reducing our risk

The best way of reducing one’s risk at home against attack by strangers is with better security.  By “better” I mean security which is strong enough and yet easy and convenient enough that you use it.  There is no point having strong locks if they are such a palaver that you don’t use them.

Many burglaries are preventable. 21% of burglars enter through an unlocked door and a further 6% through an open window.  What people fear most about burglary is being attacked by an intruder.  It’s wrong to think that because you haven’t much to steal, there’s no point having decent locks.

Get good advice about security. Age Concern knows how to arrange that, or you can go direct to Surrey Police’s crime prevention staff.  Properly protected houses are far less at risk.  That is one of the reasons why burglary is coming down.

As part of your house security, you should consider how best to deal with possible bogus callers.  Although only 6% of burglaries involve false pretences, this doubles in households headed by someone over 60.  Less than one person in three checks the credentials of callers who seek to enter the house.  An excellent start is a chain or restraint on the front door, and one that you are going to use.

Planning ahead

The next stage is to make ourselves feel less alone and vulnerable. Reducing loneliness involves getting to know our neighbours and, possibly, having a neighbourhood watch or a neighbourhood warden.  Get to know some of the young people too. You will usually find that they are not villains, but someone else’s grandchildren.

Sometimes it will help to improve the environment around your home, with better lighting (including street lighting) and making sure signs of crime, like graffiti, syringes or abandoned cars, are removed quickly.  Don’t sit back and assume that “they” necessarily know that there is a problem.  Seek out the correct contact and report any problem as soon as it occurs*.

You could also consider having a contingency plan in case you or any of your neighbours becomes a victim of crime.  Know how to get in touch with Victim Support.  Encourage the victim to help the police: many victims know the identity of their offender, but a third do not tell the police.  Encourage the victim to do whatever may be necessary to avoid a repeat offence.  All this will become essential in the very rare event of a serious crime, when the victim will feel very alone, vulnerable and isolated.

Travelling and public transport

Exactly the same points can be made about travel and public transport.  For instance, if you use a car lock it.  Over 10% of people don’t.  Take care where you park and use a secure car park if you can – Guildford is now good for these.  Hide as much as you can.  If your car is broken into, do tell the police: they are getting better at dealing with this.

Fears about personal safety stop a number of people using public transport.  The problem may be not so much the transport, but getting from the station or the bus stop to home, whether you can get a friend to accompany you, get a lift or a taxi.  The principles are the same: take whatever steps you can to avoid feeling isolated and vulnerable.

Understanding about the media

The fear of crime is heavily affected by media coverage and it is worthwhile trying to understand why.  To start with, the advertisers of home security, car and personal alarms often use fear to promote their products, sometimes targeting old people directly.

But, more widely, many of us enjoy crime as entertainment in programmes like Morse, The Bill or The Vice.  Even serious crime programmes like Crimewatch attract huge audiences. We can see several murders a night on TV: and older people see more TV than most.

The news media know that we are fascinated by crime – not normal, run-of-the-mill crime, but special crimes.  So that is what they give us: accounts of precisely those crimes which are least likely to occur  The main exception to this is local media which get their impact by emphasising crime committed by local people in a place near you.

So we end up with a mixture of serious, unusual and local crimes. Hearing about the rare but serious crimes makes a significant, possibly cumulative, impact on us. As a result, even in Surrey, one of the safest places, not only in England or Europe, but the world, you could get the impression of a crime-ridden society.

Confidence in the Criminal Justice System

Confidence in the Criminal Justice System is affected too by media coverage.

There was a time when newspapers reported much of what went on in court: not any more.  Most court reporting now is only of unusual or exceptional events – the off-beat comments of a judge; the exceptional offences; the unusual sentences.  So we end up thinking that judges are eccentric, the courts are hearing increasingly serious offences, and that offenders are getting derisory sentences.

The reality is very different.  This was demonstrated by research which asked people about imprisonment in rape cases. More than half thought that only about a third of rapists went to prison. The real figure is over 95% – and the readers of tabloid papers were most likely to get it wrong.

It’s easy to rail against the media, not least because there are occasions when they do indeed try to exploit the fear of crime.  But it is better to understand where they are coming from and aim off accordingly.

The reality is that because circulation or audience are more important to the media than comprehensiveness, we often don’t get the whole truth, just the sensational part: the part that will inflate our fear of crime.

We catch most offenders

Known offenders account for the vast majority of reported crime.  It may surprise you to hear this but, in this country, we catch and punish the vast majority of persistent offenders.  People who go on committing offences get caught and are punished for it.

It would be unrealistic to think that we could ever detect or prosecute every offence, so the experience of most of us will be that “our” offender is not caught.  But call in at any court and see how offenders are brought to justice so regularly that they have strings of convictions. Our prisons are full.  There aren’t many who are getting away with it.

We would all be less fearful of crime if we had the confidence that the criminal justice system – the police, the courts, the prison and probation services and the voluntary sector – were regularly handling the full offending population.  I am sure they are.  Indeed, one of the messages I wish we could get out to offenders is that, if they continue offending, they will get caught.  They won’t currently get that message from the media, and we suffer as a result.

Keeping fear in proportion

Although a certain fear of crime should motivate us to take sensible measures against crime, like locking our houses and cars, and  I would love to put the fear of crime into many more offenders, keeping our fear of crime in proportion will ensure that it does not rule our lives.

But how we manage our own fear is rather individual.  For instance, having stronger locks and better security can make some people feel more afraid.

Probably the most important part is getting to the point where you are confident you can cope if, after all the precautions, you happen to be a victim of crime. That can be traumatic, and sometimes victims of crime do indeed become more fearful.  But sometimes victims learn how to take better precautions, which gives them confidence, and find out that they can cope after all. Equally, we know from work carried out by the police in Guildford (Tanya Sillett) that joining a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme can make you less afraid.

Part of managing our fear is having procedures in place – friends, neighbours and family who know what to do and are prepared to help.  The other part may be how determined we can be not to let crime get the better of us.  In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar says “Cowards die many times before their deaths: the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Older people will all have lived through a time when they were much more at risk from crime than they are now. Women over 60 are less at risk of mugging than when they were under 40. Yet, perhaps because so few people are actually the victims of crime, they may look back to these earlier years and see themselves as safer then than they are today.

The test is not the opinion poll hypothetical question of whether we feel safe to go out alone at night.  More than one in four people of any age do not like  walking alone at night – not simply because of fear of crime.

A better test is the extent to which we can lead a life in which fear protects rather than limits us. We must not allow criminals and crime, let alone the media, to intimidate or imprison us: for that would be the ultimate injustice.

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Home Office Director, Government Office for the South East