The security week that was: 10/14/11 (The perception of crime)

A weekly surveillance of the news shaping your profession


It’s a bad economy. Crime is going up. Everything is getting worse. Right?

Wrong. Based on FBI numbers, which are all released as part of the Uniform Crime Reporting program, many criminal activities have been on a general decrease. Violent crime is down, and notably burglaries and robberies are both down. Robberies for 2010 (the most recent data set available) were down 10 percent from 2009. Burglaries were down 2 percent from 2009 and up slightly from 2001. And from 2009 to 2010, the FBI says "the rate of estimated larceny-thefts declined 3.0 percent." As security directors and as dealers and integrators of security equipment, I encourage you to look up crime reporting statistics every year for your area. It affects your business directly, since you’re all in the business of reducing the criminal impact on your employer’s property.

But that’s just the last year’s data, you might say. There’s no chance we’re safe like we were in the 1950s and 1960s, right? Actually, our perception is wrong again. According to Robert Sampson, chair of the sociology department at Harvard and interviewed by National Public Radio in 2010, we actually are almost back to those 1950s and ‘60s numbers.

I bring this up because every week I receive content pitches from research reports. The gist is often the same: This or that crime is up in 2011, says a new survey. No one ever sends me the survey that says, “Crime is down, so all you security guys can finally relax.” The problem, I’m finding on many of these surveys is that they are based on perception rather than on actual crime data. I’ll give you an example. The Retail Industry Leaders Association released a report this week that was designed as “an effort to measure the correlation between criminal activity and the economic downturn among the nation’s leading retailers”. That’s an admirable goal.

If you look at the RILA’s data, the members reporting in said they were experiencing increases in shoplifting, both from individuals as well as from organized crime rings. Nationally, I can tell you this: On a legal level and at the FBI, shoplifting is considered a form of larceny – a type of property crime. The FBI said that in 2010 some 17.2 percent of larceny thefts were attributable to shoplifting. That means shoplifting is half as common as larceny against property in motor vehicle and motor vehicle accessories (i.e., car stereos and the such), which totaled 35.3 percent of all reported larcenies.

But again, jump back to the 2010 data – larceny (17% of which is shoplifting) is down 3 percent, but RILA members were reporting that they were feeling increases. I’m not sure you could say that RILA contradicts the FBI or vice versa, but what it does show again is that there is often a separation between perception and actual metrics. (It also shows that an industry organization sometimes has better niche measurement skills than a federal agency, since the industry organization naturally knows the lay of the land much better).

RILA is quite open about the effect of perception (they do great research, and should be applauded for their openness). They note that the data is based on “measured or perceived changes in crime”. And rather than just ask people about their crime perceptions, RILA asked them about the things they empirically know. And that’s where you find the real strength of these reports. For example, the RILA report does a great job reporting on how loss prevention agents work together and to whom they rely for prosecuting organized crime cases (that’s local police).

Back to the issue of perception, I don’t want to throw the feelings out with the statistics water. Perception matters immensely. I’m building a fall webinar on the metrics of video surveillance and I was talking to a police chief who said that perception is a metric that has to be considered. It may not be statistically accurate and linked to a change in safety or crime, but we as humans make decisions based on our perceptions – sometimes more than we make decisions based on fact. And human nature isn’t going to change. Until then, as long as we don’t feel like it’s 1950 again, it’s not.

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