Poll: 56% of Americans think violent crime is higher today than in the 1990s. It isn't.

·7 min read

A clear majority of Americans believe there is more violent crime in the U.S. today than in the 1990s, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — even though today’s violent crime rate is much lower than it was 30 years ago.

This common misperception doesn’t come out of nowhere: U.S. homicides rose by about 25 percent between 2019 and 2020 — the largest single-year increase since reliable tracking began in 1960 — and 2021 has seen a similar year-over-year jump, due in large part to gun violence.

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Yet as disturbing as it is, America’s pandemic-era murder spike has not yet lifted the overall violent crime rate to anything approaching its early-1990s peak, or even the level to which it fell by the end of that decade. The fact that 56 percent of Americans now believe otherwise, according to the poll, underscores how challenging it has become to keep crime rates in perspective at a time when viral media and political polarization are making valid concerns feel like unprecedented emergencies — and how quickly and easily the politics of crime could become untethered from reality in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections.

The survey of 1,715 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 13 to 15, found that few Americans — just 14 percent — realize that violent crime remains lower today than in the 1990s. And while Republicans (73 percent) are more inclined to believe that violent crime is higher today than Democrats (49 percent) or independents (50 percent) are, the “highers” outnumber the “lowers” by wide margins across the political spectrum. Just 20 percent of Democrats (and just 16 percent of independents) think violent crime is lower today, for instance, while just 17 percent of Democrats (and just 13 percent of independents) think it’s “about the same.”

Mistaken perceptions of crime are nothing new. Asked whether violent crime is higher today in your own community than it was in the 1990s, the share who say yes drops by nearly 20 points (to 37 percent); likewise, just 38 percent say violent crime is increasing where they live, roughly half the number (70 percent) who say it is increasing overall across the U.S.

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According to John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, this pattern — people believing crime is much worse nationally than in their own neighborhoods — has been showing up in public opinion data for decades. But it’s the neighborhood numbers, as opposed to the national numbers, that more closely match reality.

Those local numbers “tend to track the actual experience of crime and violence pretty closely,” Roman told Yahoo News, citing Gallup polling that goes back to 1990. “When crime declined enormously in the ’90s, the public’s perception of [crime in] their own community declined as well. But with the exception of 1999 and 2000 — literally just those two years over the last 30 — you didn’t see people saying that the country [as a whole] was becoming safer, even if it was.”

The question now is whether such misperceptions are getting worse — and how that widening gap might distort the politics and policy of crime going forward.

Roman said the problem is media sensationalism and political division. “The classic ‘if it bleeds it leads,’” he explained. “We are just overwhelmed with local news stories about every homicide or shooting. It’s the leading story — you hear it every day. It’s hard to hear that all the time and not think that there’s chaos somewhere close to you.”

Social media, in turn, has the power to transform a local story into a viral one, fostering the impression that there’s even more violence out there than there used to be — regardless of whether you’re actually seeing more violence where you live. “It is pretty clear that sensationalized content generates an outsized audience on social media and [further] exaggerates threats,” Roman added.

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The Yahoo News/YouGov poll supports the notion that concerns about violent crime are outpacing its actual prevalence. A majority of Americans (52 percent) now describe “violent crime” as a “very big problem” in the United States — far more than the share who said the same last month about the coronavirus pandemic (36 percent), race relations (39 percent) or the economy (41 percent).

Make no mistake: After decreasing for decades, violent crime is up substantially and has become a major issue in a number of places in the U.S., particularly in communities of color. But we’re still far off from the level of violence seen 30 years ago. In New York City, for example, there were 462 murders last year — an almost 45 percent jump from 2019. To put that in perspective, however, the city saw an astounding 2,245 murders in 1990 before dropping off substantially in the years that followed.

How this plays out politically remains to be seen — but Republicans are trying to capitalize on the spike in crime. With President Biden’s pandemic relief plan and infrastructure proposals polling well with most Americans, Republicans have signaled that violent crime will be a major issue for them in 2022. GOP politicians from former President Donald Trump on down frequently claim that violent crime is rising because cities with Democratic leadership have reduced their police budgets — even though studies show that violent crime and murder have risen in Republican-led cities as well.

“There are very few Republican mayors,” Roman said. “So when you say the cities are going to heck, you’re talking about Democratic cities and the politics versus the actual reality of living in those places.”

There are signs that the GOP’s efforts to blame progressives for the uptick in violent crime are reaching voters. Among Americans who say violent crime is rising, for instance, 53 percent cite “the racial justice movement” as the top reason why. No other explanation — not joblessness (48 percent), systemic racism (39 percent), rising gun sales (34 percent), the pandemic (34 percent) or immigration (32 percent) — clears the 50 percent mark.

Police officers face off with protesters
Police officers face off with protesters in Charlotte, N.C., in 2016. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It’s unclear, though, whether tough-on-crime messaging that may at times exaggerate the problem can really swing the suburbs away from Biden, who authored the 1994 crime bill and spent decades talking tough on crime himself. Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to deflect accusations that they want to “defund the police” by arguing that Republicans who voted against March’s pandemic relief package — which included money that state and local governments could allocate for law enforcement — were in fact the ones doing the defunding.

Early signals for how crime will play at the ballot box have been mixed. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner — a poster boy for the progressive-prosecutor movement — easily won his primary earlier this year, and Pittsburgh’s incumbent Democratic mayor lost to a challenger who attacked him for failing to crack down on police brutality during last summer’s protests. In June, Democrat Melanie Stansbury easily won a special election for the House of Representatives in New Mexico even though her Republican opponent relentlessly accused her of wanting to defund the police and being soft on crime.

Yet in New York City, Eric Adams, a Black former cop who spoke out against police abuse but also said he considered himself “extremely conservative on crime,” recently won the Democratic mayoral primary. And Stansbury’s district was already a Democratic stronghold, meaning it may not prove to be much of a bellwether when it comes to next year’s elections.

As political tensions rise, a bipartisan deal on police reform is floundering in Congress; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of the three main negotiators, recently said proposed legislation is likely to fail if an agreement doesn’t pass by the end of July. According to Roman, the current politicization of the issue makes it very difficult to enact the kind of policies that could actually help reverse today’s troubling tide of violence.

Tim Scott
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I think we’re just going to have to wait for this crime decline to play itself out a little bit before we can implement some of the solutions we were starting to take up in 2017, 2018 and 2019,” Roman said, citing anti-violence community groups and hospital-based violence intervention programs as examples. “In a hyperpolitical world, it’s very hard to get that stuff through a budget process, because the rallying cry is ‘lock 'em up.’ You just can’t have a reasoned, evidence-based discussion.”

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