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Brian Stimson of The Skanner News
Published: 03 March 2011

A new study on the public's perception of crime reveals some troubling disconnects between reality and fantasy. Despite having the lowest crime rates since the 1960s, a majority of Oregonians wrongly believe that crime rates either rose or stayed stagnant.

Brian Renauer, Portland State University Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute director said he was interested in finding out about the public's opinions and knowledge about crime, policy and the criminal justice system. The most recent research in brief, "Do Oregonians Know About the Crime Drop?" illustrates the need for better information to be presented to the public, says Renauer.

"How to do that is the question," he told The Skanner News.

Violent crime rates have been dropping consistently in Oregon and the U.S. since about the mid-'90s, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports and Oregon Uniform Crime Reports. Property crime has ebbed and flowed in Oregon, but it has crept downward for the last 15 years to its lowest level since 1966. The official crime stats are backed up in part by the National Crime Victimization Survey.

While many Oregonians correctly responded that crime had been dropping consistently over the last 15 years, those who were unaware of the data gathered by the FBI's Uniform Crime Report tend to fit a specific demographic. Those that believed crime had increased or remained the same mainly identified as conservative, did not have a bachelor's degree, and made less than $50,000 a year.

Renauer says he doesn't know exactly why ideology, education and income play such a significant role in people's beliefs about crime.

"A certain degree of speculation has to be made," he said.

Could it be the media – with its stream of crime dramas, crime-filled nightly newscasts and police blotters?

Other studies point to the media's role in influencing crime perception. A 2004 study by the University of Delaware looked at the way 20 different television markets portrayed crime in their respective cities.

"The findings indicated that crime was the major public  issue that occupied the newscasts, more than all other public issues combined," wrote Danilo Yanich of the Local Television News Media Project at the University of Delaware. "In fact, the presentation of crime was wildly unrelated to its actual occurrence in the cities and suburbs in the television markets. Further, even though the suburban areas in the markets experienced lower crime rates, crime coverage on the newscasts was overwhelmingly a suburban phenomenon."

Yanich found that people who view television news were primarily interested in two things – weather and crime.

Renauer's study didn't include questions related to media consumption, but he said local perception about crime can be influenced through crime reporting or simply hearing about criminal activity in your neighborhood. The fact that citizens believe crime across the state has increased is more perplexing.

"They probably don't have any knowledge of it and say, well, it's probably increasing," he said.

Aaron T. Olson, a criminal justice instructor for Portland Community College, agrees that media play a huge role in creating the perception problem. If someone or someone they know actually becomes a victim of a crime, "all the stats go out the window."

"My plea is for police departments and communities to have ongoing partnerships to talk about (these issues)," he said.

Indeed, Renauer says that those who view crime as high also have little faith in the criminal justice system, despite the fact that the U.S. imprisons more of its populace than any other nation on earth. What exactly these people find wrong with the criminal justice system will be explained in a future study. A majority of those who believed crime increased believe punishment and enforcement should be top crime control strategies.

Olson, who is retired from the Oregon State Police, said city and county leadership can help to improve the criminal justice system – from holding police officers accountable, providing improved community policing training and the funding to adequately answer calls and prosecute offenders.

Olson said his criminal justice students aren't so interested in public opinion, they're focusing on the competency of the system – from the police and courts to community policing.

In Oregon, the public gets a number of chances to influence criminal justice policies through statewide ballot measure votes. Renauer says this is exactly why politicians and criminal justice practitioners need to be honest with citizens about crime trends and what policies are effective or not.

"I think it illustrates the need to be real careful on how any ballot measure is presented to the public … so they're going in as fully informed voters," he said.

He says that this study isn't evidence that criminal justice ballot measures are necessarily bad things. As a participant in last year's Citizens Initiative Review, he said learning about the initiatives had a profound impact on how those citizens voted.

The Citizens Initiative Review gathered a representational pool of Oregonians who spent an entire week hearing from a variety of opponents and proponents and other experts. One of the two measures examined was Measure 73, which imposed a new set of mandatory minimums on certain crimes. The jury that heard from experts overwhelmingly decided not to support it. 

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