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How much crime fear has to do with real crime

A mystery to criminologists

"How safe do you feel - or would you feel - if you were or would be walking alone in your residential area after dark? Very safe, somewhat safe, somewhat unsafe, very unsafe?"

On behalf of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) researchers asked this question in 2012 and 2017 as part of the "German Viktimisierungssurvey" (from Latin victima "victim" and English survey "investigation"), a large study on fear of crime and to determine the Unreported number, i.e. the proportion of criminal offenses that are not reported.

With more than 30,000 respondents each, these two surveys had 30 times more participants than opinion polls like the ARD Deutschlandtrend, which regularly asks voters who they would vote if an election were to take place next Sunday.

In 2012, around 17 percent of those questioned answered "rather unsure" or "very unsure", five years later it was already 22 percent. When asked about crimes, the proportion of those who feared a burglary rose from 18.8 to 24 percent and the proportion of those who were afraid of robbery from 18.6 to 20.9 percent. This corresponds to growth rates of 28 percent (burglary) and 12 percent (robbery).

According to police crime statistics, the total number of reported crimes fell by 4 percent over the same period, and the cases of burglary and robbery by around 20 percent each.

How does that fit together: Are fewer and fewer crime victims going to the police? When research into fear of crime and dark fields began in the mid-20th century, there was the assumption that anyone who has ever fallen victim is afraid of crime, says Dina Hummelsheim-Doß, criminologist at the Max Planck Institute for Research into Crime in Freiburg , Safety and Law in Conversation with Planet Wissen.

Are only victims of crime afraid of crime?

If one follows this assumption, then an increased number of unreported cases would explain the contradiction in the lower number of cases with increasing fear of crime. But is it even possible that fewer and fewer victims go to the police to file a complaint? This happens when they think the police won't catch the perpetrators.

In the case of burglaries, however, this does not seem plausible, because without a report there is no compensation from the insurance. However, the number of household contents policies in Germany increased by one million contracts between 2012 and 2017

Tracking down the causes of fear of crime

Criminologist Dina Hummeslheim-Doß says that the assumption that primarily those who fear crime are afraid of crime has been refuted, says criminologist Dina Hummeslheim-Doß: "Victims do not necessarily have a higher fear of crime than people without direct experience as crime victims."

But how can the riddle of falling registered crime and increasing fear of it be solved? International studies show that fear of crime depends on the age, gender, level of education, income and place of residence of the respondents. The 2012 German Victimization Survey found that women are much more afraid of falling victim to a crime, even though their statistical risk of falling victim to criminals is significantly lower than that of men.

People between the ages of 36 and 54 are least likely to fear crime. But their share of the population fell from 29 percent (2012) to 26 percent (2017), so the aging of society could be part of the explanation.

How rubbish on the street and broken windows affect fear of crime

But there are more reasons for the contradiction. The criminologist Helmut Hirtenlehner, professor at the University of Linz, and Max Planck researcher Dina Hummelsheim-Doß point out that the fear of crime is less, the friendlier the respondents perceive their living environment and the closer they experience the social cohesion there .

In the 1990s this phenomenon became known as the "broken windows" theory. US researchers established a connection between social rule violations such as vandalism damage to empty buildings and crime.