Crime is uniquely susceptible to the manipulation of perceptions.

It is common, it is bad, it is fascinating.

A wide spectrum of this common, bad, fascinating activity exists, and the fixation of fascinated attention on certain narrow portions of this spectrum serves numerous powerful political interests. Those numerous, already-aligned, authoritarian political interests — tabloid media, conservative politicians — are only too happy to indulge the public’s fascination. No similar political interest is usually served by attempting to understand other portions of the spectrum. Attempting to understand the spectrum as a whole, or the overall picture and causes of crime, might serve the purpose of building a better society, but that purpose is one which, all entrenched political powers agree, must remain unthinkable.

Which types of crime are they, on which power so fixates attention? Preferably those which are sensational, preferably involving violence and fear, preferably with perpetrators who are suitably villainous and “not like us”, where “we” means the “good folk” who are normalised within society. Powerless, marginalised groups form perfect villains: immigrants, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, Indigenous people, and in general, “others”.

In Australia at present, that means asylum seekers and refugees, it means African Australians, it means Aboriginal Australians.

Accordingly, the fixated attention of society on this narrow portion of crime — and its villains — blows it out of all proportion. Perceptions of crime in society can warp radically, tending towards fear and paranoia of the fixated type of crime, and the fixated vilains — and generalises to a fear of society at large.

The propaganda powers of media campaigns, their political protagonists, and their guerrilla online counterparts, are substantial. The far right delights in it.

A fearful populace is one that is easier to control. It is one which will more easily submit to existing oppression as justified or necessary, and accept further devolution towards a surveillance or police state. Fearful people will tend to look out only for themselves, diminishing the bonds of social solidarity, and furthering capitalist atomisation. And as the public holds a paranoid, distorted idea of reality, the desire to understand society, and in particular the root causes of crime, diminishes, or becomes unthinkable. Hysterical overreaction to the villains is the urgent goal, anything else is wasting time against this menace. The already marginalised will be oppressed further.

* * *

What is the situation in Victoria?

Crime statistics are freely available in Victoria.

What do they say?

(Let us put aside broader questions, such as whether existing laws are good laws, whether the criminal justice system is a good one, what better systems might exist, and so on.)

We can, for the moment, put aside subtle questions of methodology. (Do people report more crimes now, especially domestic violence? Should we refer to the number of criminal incidents, recorded offences, or offenders?) Because in any case it the statistics tell a fairly clear story.

To a first approximation, in Victoria, crime rates have decreased since 2016. They were roughly level from 2009 to 2015, at a rate of just under 6,000 incidents per 100,000 population, with a jump in 2016 to over 6,600. The rate has since decreased, and the current crime rate is similar to the rate of 2009-15. This crime rate is roughly similar to other states in Australia.

Some categories of crime, however, have not decreased from 2016-18. Assaults have remained steady at around 610 incidents per 100,000 population, and sexual offences have increased from about 110 to 132 incidents per 100,000 population. On the other hand, theft and burglary have decreased dramatically (from about 2,500 to 2,100, and from about 840 to 620 incidents per 100,000 population, respectively).
(More detail can be found from the Age here or in the statistics themselves.)

These numbers are too high. They mean thousands of sexual offences, tens of thousands of assaults and burglaries, and hundreds of thousands of thefts, happen each year, in Victoria. Each such crime is potentially a source of outrage.

Society ought to work so that these numbers, in the long run, tend to zero. It is not at all clear that more draconian laws or policing will help that goal. It requires addressing the root causes, which include, among others, poverty, misogyny, racism, authoritarianism, capitalism, and a culture which glorifies greed and violence.

But nonetheless, the point about perception remains. If one felt that, despite the continual rate of ongoing crime, that Victoria was a generally safe place to live in 2015, and one is consistent, then (putting aside local variations) one must feel the same at the beginning of 2019.

Indeed, Melbourne ranked in the top 10 safest cities in the world, in a 2017 Economist study.

If one feels that “African gangs” are a menace to society, as right-wing politicians and tabloid media continue to claim, despite the protestations even of the police to the contrary, then one is living in an alternate reality — a reality that at least has provided some social media entertainment, but whose racism is profoundly damaging to African communities in Melbourne.

The Doors of Crime Perception
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