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Disconnecting fact from fiction

In the face of partial information, people often take a mental shortcut in making sense.

About a month ago, I attended the “United Against Crime” carnival organised by the Home Ministry in Johor Baru.

At the press conference, it was mentioned that the crime rate came down by 40% over the last five years but many Malaysians believed it went up or remained the same.

The gap between the two was in the region of 90%. We call this gap the “Reality-Perception” gap or “Reassurance” gap.

At the same forum, one of the reporters asked “if the crime rate actually came down, how come we are still worried about crime?”

In short, he was asking why the fear of crime is high.

Another reporter enquired whether the crime rate is low because people were not reporting crimes to the police.

I was initially surprised by the comments but that is the reality on the ground. The public does not believe the crime numbers from the police.

This is mainly because the fear of crime remains high.

Additionally, the public believes not all crime is recorded possibly because the police are not keen to do so.

The crime numbers from the police are valid and reliable.

In my article “Putting the brakes on car theft” in The Star on May 17, the number of car thefts reported to the police is much higher than the numbers reported to the insurance companies.

So the contention that the police are not keen in recording crime is not quite true.

Furthermore, in our pilot project on Modern Policing at the Brickfields and Taman Tun Dr Ismail police stations in Kuala Lumpur, we found that 80% of the reports made were actually not related to crime.

Examples of such reports are loss of identity cards, domestic disputes between spouses, birth of a child and so on.

So it is indeed not true that the police are not keen in recording incidents.

In my article “Throwing light on the crime statistics” in The Star on April 19, I mentioned that there is a dark figure of crime not reported to the police.

The dark figure is uncovered through victimisation surveys.

In our quick survey in Malaysia in late 2014, we found a dark figure of around 50%.

The dark figure of crime is not unique to Malaysia. It is prevalent in many countries as shown in Table 1.

There are many reasons for not reporting as can be seen from Table 2 (based on a survey in the United States). My view is that the public should report all crimes.

The ability of the police to fulfill their functions is dependent on the public reporting all crimes discovered.

How else can the police ensure that offenders are brought to justice and the needs and expectations of victims are met?

Coming back to the reality-perception gap, I have reiterated that crime and the fear of crime are not correlated. They are actually distant cousins.

The crime rate is an objective measure whereas the fear of crime is a subjective measure.

Similarly, the actual time taken as shown by the stopwatch is not the same as the “psychological” time we have in our mind.

When we said the numbers came down, the public cannot accept it as “my neighbour said his friend just got robbed the other day” or “my house was broken into twice within three months”.

Hence, to the public, the crime rate must not be coming down.

The crime rate is based on crime reported to the police.

What the neighbour said or the house being broken into twice within three months are “conversations” about incidents.

We measure the number of incidents reported in a year but “conversations” may be based on a single or few incidents that happened recently or even some time ago.

It could also go viral giving the picture of many incidents when in reality it is only one incident but repeated many times.

Conversation increases the fear of crime, whereas facts and figures have little influence on how the public feels.

I have been involved in the NKRA Reducing Crime over a year now.

When the statistics are bad, the statistics seem to be accepted and used to criticise the authorities. When the statistics are good, they are not believed.

This is a serious challenge as crime is a top concern among the public.

Perceptions about the competence in dealing with crime are a key driver of the overall views of the police as well as the rakyat’s quality of life.

In many countries, distinctive policies have been developed to reduce fear levels. Indeed, the fear of crime is now recognised as a more widespread problem than crime itself.

As mentioned in my article “Do you care when crime happens” in The Star on July 5, the media plays a key role in influencing the fear of crime.

As in the case of Ebola last year, a survey shows that about 40% of Americans believed that there would be a large outbreak of the Ebola in the United States when it was far from the reality.

So why the disconnect? The news media actually admitted it could have been their fault.

In today’s 24-hour, Internet-based communications, we can view criminal incidents as they unfold on TV and news websites.

We can also experience them via social media. The media brings us closer to the event by integrating emotion (sorrow, anger or fear) through the images that they circulate.

We thus feel as if we are at the crime scene. This is common and is known as “availability bias” – meaning it is a mental shortcut for making sense of partial information.

We create a picture of the crime using the examples that most easily come to mind.

For example, are there more English words that start with a “K” or more words with “K” as their third letter? The answer – more than twice as many English words have “K” in third position than start with a “K”. We believe the opposite because we can think of words beginning with a “K” more quickly.

You can view how availability bias works at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_wkv1Gx2vM

We depend on the media for information on crime and we form our opinion on what we read and hear. Ninety-five per cent of the American public cites the mass media as the primary source of information about crime and 75% believes the media’s stories are reliable.

In Britain, when the public is asked why they think there is more crime today, more than half say it is because of what they see on television, and almost half say it is because of what they read in the newspapers.

Similarly, in a survey carried out by Frost and Sullivan in 2014 in Malaysia, just over 50% of respondents reported a higher fear of crime due to exposure to the traditional media.

Media news is biased towards the negative. The media tends to focus on crimes against the person – particularly homicide and sexual offences.

In Britain, 45% of crimes in the newspapers involve sex or violence compared to only 3% of such crimes reported to the police.

Similarly, an American study found that two thirds of crime news is about violence and sex even though they account for less than 10% of actual crime (although about 65% is not reported). Homicide rates fell 20% but news coverage of homicide rose 600%.

It boils down perhaps to what sells – is it serious, is there human interest and an element of drama. Violent crime stories are “marketable” because they provide good visuals for the media. As the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”.

Fear is an irrational thing and we are often driven by what we hear and read from the media, and in our conversation with friends and family.

Hearing about events especially from family and friends raises our fear of crime. This has been described as a “crime multiplier”.

In fact research shows that indirect experiences of crime may play a stronger role in raising anxieties.

What then can we do to take control of the conversations and turn them into something positive?

Can we use the same conversation to create feelings of empowerment and safety?

We can take control of conversations by filtering opinions and focusing on facts.

We can also create and join the conversations in a positive and proactive way by participating in Rukun Tetangga, Rakan Cop and residents’ associations or NGOs such as United Against Crime.

These initiatives help address the upstream process to prevent crime from happening.

The mere act of being together, conversing with each other and doing something will give a sense of empowerment and reduce the fear of crime.

In my next article, I will be addressing Modern Policing – the transformation within the police forces.

Datuk Dr Amin Khan is Director of Pemandu’s Reducing Crime NKRA. He can be reached at aminkhan@pemandu.gov.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own. To view previous articles published in The Star, visit http://www.unitedagainstcrime.com.my/articles

Nation , Pemandu