What contributes to people’s perception of crime?
In Victoria, particularly in the past year and especially on social media, it is common following a criminal incident to see discussion around an increased feeling of lack of safety or a sense that crime is getting worse. Posts about not feeling safe walking through parks or things having been better “when I was growing up” are frequent.
Yet, crime rates in the Victoria Police Department’s district of Victoria and Esquimalt have remained fairly consistent over the past decade, and are significantly lower than they were two decades ago. In 2019 – the latest data available from Statistics Canada – the crime rate (per 100,000) was 11,792, up from 10,540 in 2018, but almost on par with the 2011 rate of 11,573. In 1998 – the furthest back data available – the crime rate was 21,285.
So, why is it then that many people perceive an increase in crime?
Three possible answers are a change in police communications, the echo chamber of social media and the unique circumstances the pandemic has thrust upon people.
Up until about 10 years ago, police – and most organizations – relied on media to get their messages out. Police would fax incidents to newsrooms and it would be up to journalists to decide whether it was in the public interest to know about it and if it should be investigated further, Camosun communications department chair Lois Fernyhough explained.
Now, with the rise of social media, organizations have their own broadcast tool.
“They’re cutting out the middle man, or gate-keeping function of news media organizations,” Fernyhough said. If media picks up on it the message will be amplified, but regardless it will already be out there.
Bowen Osoko and Cam MacIntyre of VicPD’s communication and community engagement division both said posting news releases – what they call “community updates” – directly to social media and their website has fulfilled a public demand for more transparency and information. They also serve an investigative purpose, allowing the public to help identify suspects and find witnesses, missing persons and stolen goods.
An enormous increase in the number of community updates between 2019 and 2020 could be a factor in perception of crime, though. In 2019, VicPD released 186 updates. Last year, that rose to 507.
But 2020 was also the year MacIntyre was brought onboard, and Osoko said they switched from providing many of their reports on Twitter and through direct messages to releasing them all through community updates. So, the tripling in numbers may be slightly misleading.
Police are one of several groups that can benefit from the perception of increased crime though, University of Victoria sociology professor Tamara Humphrey said.
“They’re facing unprecedented push back and there’s a spotlight on how they use their money, so it serves them to show that these budget increases are required,” she said.
Regardless, in a city as media-saturated as Victoria, with police posting updates to social media and residents sharing them, it is likely people are exposed to the same crime stories multiple times.
Social media also gives people a platform to share their own anecdotal experiences and incidents that may not make it to the police or into the news. These experiences and the sharing of them can contribute to people feeling less safe, but won’t always be reflected in crime statistics.
Social media does make it so experiences that may have been relayed to 10 or 20 people in person can make it to hundreds or thousands instead. And, during the pandemic, people have relied on social media even more. According to a Statistics Canada report from October, 41 per cent of respondents said they were spending more time on social media and messaging services.
In Victoria, and many cities, the pandemic has also made homelessness far more visible. While studies do show a connection between homelessness and crime, there is nothing to suggest the increased visibility of the former has an effect on the rate of the latter. Whether crime rates increased in 2020 is yet to be seen.
“Because (people living near encampments are) so close to stigmatized populations, they’re more likely to perceive that there’s an increase (in crime) even when there isn’t, and even when they don’t have direct experiences of victimization,” Humphrey said. The pandemic has also brought an increase in anxiety.
“With the encampments, this has become a fertile ground for people’s anxieties to coalesce around,” Humphrey said. “We’re generally more anxious given the state of the world right now, and we can’t do anything about COVID-19. But, oh look, there’s these people who make me anxious and so they must be the problem.”
It’s human nature to be drawn to out of the ordinary occurrences, Fernyhough said, only now they can be consumed, shared and amplified at an unprecedented rate.
“It’s this sort of endless cycle that’s happened, and people are programmed for things that are unusual and startling,” she said.
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