Perception of Crime vs. Crime Statistics

by Safety Connection

February 11, 2023

Some in our City are using Chief Barnes’ first ever State of Public Safety Address to highlight the fear residents have of crime instead of crime itself. That was not the totality, or focus, of his message. The Chief did say, “every chief in every city in America will tell you that fear of crime is far more important than any actual number or statistics.”

Do you buy that? I would like to take a poll.

Comparing a few select numbers against the huge spike in violent crime we saw locally (and in many other cities across the country) in 2020 and 2021 does not mean the city is safe and that our perception of crime is what needs to be tamped down. Ask the mothers of those shot. Or even the family members of those killed by “justifiable” homicides, vehicular homicides, or drug-overdose homicides, which don’t make it into the numbers. 

Or ask the people in our City who witnessed the violence on our streets or in our schools, or were themselves victims of one crime or another. 

We need to take gun violence seriously in our neighborhoods because we have a problem with violent crime, even if the numbers dropped from a significant spike. Chief Barnes acknowledged that. We still have much more than we had before the spike and we still have the actual stories themselves. Of brazen violent crime like we’ve never seen before here in Madison. A man getting gunned down and killed in front of his mother at rush hour just outside the Jail and Police Chief’s office window. Another shot multiple times at close range on a crowded State Street in the afternoon, less than a block from Capitol Square. The shooter has not been captured. Or the one outside a busy construction site on Lakeside in daylight hours. Even the real recent one where a kid accidentally shot himself in the leg inside a car full of people in the parking lot of Lussier Center, on school property. The gun has not been recovered. 

Photo of a Madison Police squad parked in front of a hospital emergency room

The fact that more illegal guns were confiscated in 2022 is probably an indication that there are more illegal guns on the street, not to mention that many have been stolen out of unlocked cars by juveniles. 

There is also the fact that non-residential burglaries spiked 43% in 2022. People who own and work at businesses have every reason to feel less safe. More stores are closing earlier, more have armed security at their doors, some late-night employees call for a police escort to their cars out of concerns for their safety.

A cashier at Hy-Vee recently told me to be safe. “I wouldn’t even shop at this time of night (around 10pm),” she said as I checked out, “because of the things we’re seeing.” They used to be open 24 hours, now they close at 11pm. They didn’t used to have armed security guards during their busiest hours, but now they do.

Photo of pharmaceuticals behind glass

The Walgreens pharmacy across the street, which also used to be open 24-hours per day, 7 days per week, now closes between 8 and 10pm, depending on the day. More and more products are behind lock and key up and down their aisles. Not because they fear theft will happen, but because it is happening and drives up the costs for everyone. 

Madison is a great and largely safe city, but we can’t let our guard down. Larger cities right next door are experiencing unimaginable levels of violent crime. The City of Milwaukee broke its homicide record for the third year in a row, with 214 homicides in 2022, up from 193 in 2021. 

And gun violence is now the leading cause of death in youth 1-19 years of age, for the first time ever.

We need to keep working at what Chief Barnes pointed toward: working together in robust partnerships between law enforcement, community members, and nonprofits is important in seeing a downward trend from a very large spike continue. We need greater police-community partnership and resident involvement to cut down crime overall and especially crimes of opportunity. The vast majority of stolen autos are unlocked, some even running. But those stolen cars are often used in the committing of other serious crimes. We need to increase community involvement to have safer neighborhoods. 

Chicago saw fewer shootings too, but with 695 homicides in 2022, there is still plenty of fear and plenty of grieving families. But what is more important: the public’s perception and fear of crime? Or the fact that 695 mostly Black lives were claimed on the streets of Chicago? Crime statistics are infinitely more important than feelings and perceptions to me, and I would guess that would be true for most of the other police chiefs in cities across America. It’s likely more important to Chief Barnes, too. 

Here is a balanced look at crime stats and other relevant issues in our City by long-standing journalist, Chris Rickert, from a Wisconsin State Journal article dated 2/11/2023.

Rickert points out, “The most serious reported crimes — a group including homicide, drug crimes, assault and theft — increased from 13,524 in 2021 to 14,004 last year, while crime overall increased from 25,188 to 26,703 incidents over the same period….Still, there was a 43% increase in nonresidential burglaries, he said, and department data also show increases in assaults generally (26%), drug offenses (19%) and damage to property (22%).”

So if you’re concerned about crime, that’s understandable. Like Chief Barnes said, the only acceptable homicide rate in our City is zero. Let’s allow our concern to drive us to better solutions, including resourcing and partnering with our police officers, other agencies, nonprofits and each other to keep moving toward safer streets for all. 

Bonnie Roe has lived in Madison for 22 years and has taken an active interest in public safety and strengthening the partnership between police and the community.

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