May 2015

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Is it idealistic to think of a society in which we have no fear of criminal victimization? Do we have a right to demand safety for our family and neighbours or are we far removed from the ideals enshrined in Article 3 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person)?

The expansion of the security industry, emergence of gated communities, increased budgetary allocation to security and crime, discourses in parliament and the media, send a clear signal, that crime is a major concern in our society. Over the last four years the annual average budget allocation to the Ministry of National Security was TT$5.5 billion.

The findings of a recent survey conducted by the ANSA McAL Psychological Research Centre showed that over 50% of citizens in Trinidad saw crime as a major national problem. Preliminary results from an ongoing 2015 Crime Victimisation and Fear of Crime Survey funded by the T&T Research Development Impact (RDI) Fund have shown that 44% of respondents were afraid of being victims of crimes. It suggests that for every 100,000 persons within the adult population of Trinidad, about 44,000 persons are fearful of being criminally victimised. This lecture explores possible explanations of these findings.

Understanding Fear of Crime

Fear is usually considered a negative emotion associated with high physiological arousal, creating a flight or fight response. This emotion is functional since we are biologically wired to respond to danger cues as a means to protect ourselves and members of our group. Fear of crime is one of these functional responses. A classic definition is that fear of crime is an emotional response of dread or anxiety to crime or symbols that a person associates with crime (Ferraro, 1995). Several factors may help us to understand our fear of crime levels. Among these, the actual crime rates and the perceived crime rates are two extremely important factors that affect fear levels. Crime rates that are absolutely or relatively high send a signal to citizens that those in authority may not have control over the crime situation.

It seems obvious that perception of and confidence in the police are other factors. Higher confidence in the police is associated with lower fear levels. However, citizens’ confidence is also bolstered when the criminal justice system efficiently and expeditiously responds to criminal matters. In addition, neighbourhood disorders, including quality of life in the community, levels of poverty, orderliness of surroundings, and other measures of community civility are associated with fear levels. An interesting observation is that the power of rumour in close-knit communities informs residents of criminal violations and they often develop protective responses via informal conversations. Studies have shown that persons in rural areas are more likely to be fearful than those in urban areas, in anticipation of being a victim of crime. However, there are no consistent findings in the literature on the association between the rural and urban dichotomy and fear levels. Among other factors associated with fear of crime is the severity. Crimes differ in their severity and consequences, such as the consequences of murder against burglary. Another is person and group vulnerability: some groups and persons are more vulnerable than others, gender/age/shift workers. Persons who have been victimized or are indirect victims of crime, that is their relative or friend has been a victim, are more likely to be afraid.

Paradoxes of Fear

A number of fear-of-crime paradoxes require acknowledgment. These paradoxes suggest that groups that are least likely to be victimized are more likely to be fearful. To appreciate them we need to assess official police data and crime victimization survey data, where available.

The Gender Paradox suggests that besides sexual assault and domestic violence, females are less likely to be victims of crime but are more likely to be fearful of victimization than males.

The Age Paradox suggests that older persons are more likely to be afraid than younger persons but less likely to be victims of crime.

The Ethnic Paradox suggests that certain ethnic groups may be less likely to be victims but more afraid.

Data from the UNDP 2012 Victimization Survey suggest that older persons are less likely to be victims of crimes than younger persons; males were more likely to be victims than females and persons of African descent more likely to be victims than other ethnic groups. Some of these findings are supported by official crime statistics, where available, from the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service. However, conversely, the fear of crime data from our 2015 RDI study on Fear of Crime suggest that females are more likely to be afraid than males for all crimes. Similarly for all crimes Indo-Trinidadians were more likely to be fearful than Afro-Trinidadians or Mixed persons. Therefore, the relationship between fear of crime and gender is not consistent with a victimization trend but consistent with the literature: females having higher fear levels (Chadee, 2003; Chadee & Ng Ying, 2013). The relationship between fear of crime and age is consistent with the victimization trend but not consistent with the literature’s age paradox neither with the 2015 RDI findings as well as Chadee and Ditton, 2003. The relationship between fear of crime and ethnicity is not consistent with the victimization trend. Indo-Trinidadians are more likely to be fearful but are less likely to be victims (Chadee, 2003; Chadee & Ng Ying, 2013).

The literature suggests that a major factor influencing fear of crime is official crime rates. The official crime rates in 2013 for some crimes against person and property per 100,000 were 30.4 incidents for murder, 40.5 incidents for wounding and shooting, 15.9 incidents for rape, 221.3 incidents for robbery, 221.8 incidents for burglary and break-in. However, the fear of crime rates per 100,000 as approximated from the RDI Fear Survey’s preliminary data far exceed the official victimization rates. For example, while the crime rate per 100,000 for murder is 30.4, the fear of crime for murder rate per 100,000 is 38,757.

The fear of crime rate per 100,000 for break-ins is 49,703, for robbery is 46,551, and wounding and shooting 43,376. As a note, official crime rates may not be reflective of actual victimization rates. Further, the difference in years between the survey (2015) and the most updated official statistics (2013) is not an explanatory factor in understanding the actual crime-fear paradox.

Among the other explanations of fear of crime is our estimation of the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime. The literature has consistently shown a relationship between our risk assessment and fear of crime levels. The higher our estimation of becoming a victim of crime the more likely we are to be fearful. However, our naïve probabilistic evaluation of risk as determined by objective factors (eg, official statistics) and subjective factors (eg, psychological and social factors) may lead to distorted conclusions of our own vulnerability of criminal victimization. Cognitively, our assessment of personal victimization is more likely to be influenced by the possibility of the event happening to us rather than the statistical probability. Possibilities are quite often illusory. Consider the possibility of winning a lottery and then the probability of winning a lottery. The former may motivate us to purchase a ticket while if the latter is seriously considered we may not purchase the ticket.

Operating on possibilities has a self-fulfilling prophecy effect since excessive protective behaviour motivated by fear may direct us away from potential danger. However, our behaviour may also become exclusive to the interaction within specific spaces and groups. Such exclusiveness may break down important community interaction needed to create the necessary social solidarity to bond groups. \

Our ongoing research on fear of crime focuses on a number of research areas which attempts to understand the dynamics of fear of crime and its idiosyncrasies within the Caribbean context. Among the research interests are social psychological factors including an understanding of the relationship between fear of crime and personality, time perspective, altruistic fear, vulnerability, level of intolerance, anxiety and neighbourhood cohesiveness.

Fear of crime is a major issue in contemporary society and “perceptions are the solid facts of reality.” We construct our social world based on our perceptions. The hope is that the kind of research we are currently doing will be useful in informing policy and interventions in the reduction of fear and to understand how our perceptions of reality influence our decision-making processes.

This is a summary of some of the points made at Professor Derek Chadee’s Professorial Inaugural Lecture held on March 26, 2015 at the Learning Resource Centre at The UWI, St. Augustine campus.