Counter-intuitively, it is not a myth that earwigs enter human ears , or that ants may get into your pants , but it is very unlikely to happen to you inside your home or while walking about outside. Hence, we tend to say that the risk of either of these events happening to anyone is extremely low. If however you were to fall asleep in a flower bed of dahlias or beside a nest of ants then the risks of personal earwig or ant infestation would be significantly increased. And so it is with crime. The chances of being robbed, burgled or murdered may be relatively low – across the board - at a national level. But the risks faced by individuals living or working in high crime areas will be significantly higher.
For those living in high crime areas, the orthodox view that fear of crime is greater than the reality of crime could well turn out to be another super myth that affects thinking and diverts attention away from tackling real problems and from identifying effective crime reduction and policing practice. Muddled academic and official thinking can occur in this area because at a national level, at least in the industrialized western world, the overall level of fear of crime, or incidences of specific anxiety about crime is greater than the actual risk. That said, people living in particularly notorious high crime areas may have an overall level of anxiety or individual incidences of fear of crime that are more commensurate with their actual risk of being victimised.
The problem is that the British Crime Survey (BCS) does not sample real high crime areas – it takes a proxy sample instead, which in reality involves sampling respondents from the BCS data set according to the housing architectural type they live in. In doing this the BCS high crime area sample is taken merely by analysis of the data to create a sub-sample on the basis of two assumptions: (1) that certain housing architectural types are public sector built and (2) when combined with other variables such as low household income and unemployment that they are homes in high crime areas. In fact, they may be neither. By determining what are and are not high crime areas in this way, the BCS proxy sampling most probably waters down its sample of respondents in real high crime areas with a sample of respondents from low or medium crime areas.
In order to seek to know whether those living in real – geographically defined – high crime areas fear crime more than those in lower crime areas the Home office should conduct a regular booster sample of respondents living in real high crime neighbourhoods. Until this is done, policy making and policing that is based on the belief that fear of crime is greater than the reality of crime is likely to lead to practice based on dubious information. The need for a booster sample of notorious high crime neighbourhoods is something that I and my colleague Machi Tseloni call for in our recently published paper:
Sutton, M. and Tseloni, A. (2011). Area Crime and Fear of Crime Levels: Has analysis of the British Crime Survey diluted crime concentration and homogenised risk?' Criminology [εγκληματολογία ](Special Issue): Fear of Crime: A Comparative Approach in the European Context. pp. 32-39. In. C. Zarafonitou. (Guest Editor) October 2011 Athens: Law Library.