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Fear of crime is one of the most lasting outcomes of a crime-ridden society. Individuals who have been victims of crime often fear that they may be victimized again. Individuals who have never been victimized may also fear crime since they are reminded of crime and victimization through the media, they hear about the victimization experiences of others, and they are told to be concerned about crime and victimization from politicians and law enforcement officials. Both victims and nonvictims alike often fear strangers in public spaces. This is especially true of women, who are much more likely to be victimized by a known assailant in the private sphere. The consequence of fear of crime involves taking a variety of behavioral measures to stay safe, potentially causing changes in lifestyle, stress, and additional fear for self or others.
Criminologists have studied fear of crime for over 30 years. Much of the early literature focused on defining and measuring fear of crime, debating if fear of crime was an emotive or cognitive response to potential victimization. Although definitional and measurement issues clearly still concern fear of crime researchers, the majority of researchers now focus on understanding the causes and consequences of fear of crime.
A person’s gender, race, class, and age may influence his or her fear of crime level. Although men, non-White individuals, younger individuals, and lower-class individuals are most likely to be victims of a crime, they may not be the individuals found to be most fearful. For example, a person’s gender is a strong predictor of fear of crime, with women reporting more fear of crime than men. This has led to the study of the “gender-fear paradox,” since women are less likely than men to be the victim of a crime, even though they report substantially more fear of crime. With regard to age, elderly individuals are often found to have higher levels of fear of crime than younger people. However, age-based fear of crime is increased by other factors, such as living alone or having a low income. In terms of social class, low-income individuals are most likely to report fear of crime. Finally, the connection between a person’s race and fear of crime is complicated since it is not only individuals’ race that determines their fear of crime, but also the racial composition of the neighborhood in which they live.
Two other causes of fear of crime include victimization experiences and neighborhood conditions. Direct and indirect victimization experiences may both impact fear of crime. In this area of research, study results have been mixed, with some studies suggesting that direct victimization experiences cause individuals to fear the possibility of experiencing victimization in the future, while other studies suggest that being a non-victim makes individuals more likely to experience fear of crime. This issue is further complicated in studying indirect victimization, where individuals experience victimization vicariously by hearing stories of others’ victimization. The possibility that what happened to someone on the news, to a family member, or to a next door neighbor might happen to oneself is sometimes sufficient to make an individual afraid of crime. In terms of neighborhood conditions, social disorganization or perception of the environment as unsafe greatly impacts fear of crime. Physical incivilities in neighborhoods include things such as trash on the street, broken windows in buildings, or graffiti. Social incivilities include gangs of teenagers hanging out on neighborhood street corners or open drug sales in a neighborhood. Both physical and social incivilities are found to increase fear of crime.
Another important facet of fear of crime involves the consequences of fear of crime in individuals’ daily lives. The primary way that individuals cope with fear of crime is by engaging in constrained behaviors (the behaviors individuals take to keep themselves safe
from potential victimization). There are two forms of constrained behaviors: protective behaviors (proactive measures, such as owning a gun, locking doors, or having an alarm system) and avoidance behaviors (reactive measures, such as avoiding going places alone, avoiding going places at night, or avoiding certain areas of a city). Most research suggests that individuals engage in a variety of protective and avoidance measures to reduce potential criminal victimization. The research findings on the impact of these behaviors in reducing fear of crime are mixed, with some studies arguing that constrained behaviors produce more fear of crime and others arguing fear subsides as a result of these behaviors. In addition, some researchers suggest that engaging in constrained behaviors, especially avoidance behaviors, can restrict mobility, decrease freedom, and minimize autonomy.
In some cases, fear of crime may be more of a problem than crime itself. Those most likely to fear crime include women, the elderly, White individuals in non-White neighborhoods, and lower-income individuals. Further, individuals who live in socially disorganized neighborhoods or those who have experienced direct or indirect victimization show increased levels of fear as well. The consequences of fear of crime are the increased behaviors taken to protect from potential crime occurring. These behaviors can greatly restrict individuals’ mobility and can actually increase their fear of crime. Future research on this topic may help alleviate fear of crime and promote greater understanding of victimization experiences.
- Hale, C. (1996). Fear of crime: A review of the literature. International Review of Victimology, 4, 79-159.
- Mesch, G. (2000). Perceptions of risk, lifestyle activities, and fear of crime. Deviant Behavior, 21, 67-72.
- Reid, L. W., Roberts, J. T., & Hilliard, H. M. (1998). Fear of crime and collective action: An analysis of coping strategies. Sociological Inquiry, 68, 312-328.
- Rountree, P. W. (1998). A reexamination of the crime-fear linkage. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 35, 341-377.