Fear of crime has been a central issue in criminal policy, police strategy, and criminological research since the 1960s in the United States and since the 1980s in Europe. This development has been accompanied by rising crime rates and, usually, by an increased law-and-order discourse (cf. Ferrall et al., 2009). Meanwhile, one can observe not only a remarkable crime drop but a decrease in fear of crime rates as well.
After discussing the understanding of fear of crime and mentioning the central explanatory concepts, the decrease of crime and fear of crime in two major European countries with available time series data will be discussed; for Germany, in comparison with social and economic anxieties.
Fear of crime can be understood as the affective component of personal crime attitudes. The latter also includes personal risk assessment (the cognitive component) and behavioural responses to avoid or protect against criminal victimisation (the conative component). Fear is triggered by threats to physical, sexual, or psychological integrity. Fear of crime, therefore, refers to violent or sexual offences as well as burglary, while property offences will be associated with anger and economic offences with annoyance (Boers, 2003; Gerber et al., 2010).
The operationalisation of fear of crime is still in question. From its inception to the present, fear of crime has been surveyed with a one-item question used in regular population surveys: How safe do you feel or would you feel being out alone in your neighbourhood after dark (the so-called standard item). This question does, however, not meet the criteria of internal measurement validity. Criminal offences are not explicitly mentioned. Thus, in addition to crime-related dangers, an unspecified sense of threat may be addressed, which may also be accompanied by diffuse fears of "darkness" or "being alone".
Therefore, one should ask for specific offences that can trigger a fear reaction; furthermore, reference should be made to the residential area since all respondents can only judge this area from their own perception (specific fear of crime). The redesigned question is: To what extent does it worry you to be beaten up, robbed, killed, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, or raped in your neighbourhood, or to have your home broken into? (not at all, somewhat, quite, or very worried). This specific query has become common since the 1980s, especially in criminological studies and large-scale crime surveys (e.g., Maxfield, 1984; Ferraro, 1995: 34-37; Crime Survey for England and Wales). By taking into account the frequency and impact of fearful experiences, the measurement of fear of crime has been noticeably improved in recent years (Farrall et al., 2009; Jackson & Kuha, 2016).
Three main approaches have emerged to explain fear of crime: at the individual level, the victimisation perspective; at the social meso level of the neighbourhood, the social control perspective; and at the social macro level, the social problem perspective. Empirical investigations of these single perspectives yielded mixed evidence while perceived signs of social disorganisation in the neighbourhood appeared to be most influential; see Boers, 2003; Farrall et al., 2009). Against this background, integrative explanatory models have been developed that focus on mediating and moderating relationships between the micro, meso and macro level (Ferraro, 1995; Boers, 2003; Farrall et al., 2009). In this short contribution, one aspect of the social-problem perspective is of particular interest: insecurities about social, economic or political problems are transferred to crime and lead, in turn, to fear of crime (cf. Hummelsheim et al. 2011).
Developments of Crime and Fear of Crime
According to the representative Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), from the end of the 1990s until 2020, both the prevalence rate of violent victimisation and the rate of fear of crime have continuously decreased by about two-thirds (fear: from 25 to 8 per cent "highly worried"; victims of violence from 4.4 to 1.6 per cent). Fear of crime was surveyed with the specific question related to four violent offences: mugging, rape, physical attack by a stranger and racially-motivated assault (Figure 1, with data details).
Figure 1: Developments of fear* and victimisation** of violent offences in England and Wales, 1997-2020. Per cent of highest level of ‘worry’ (n = 8,569-46,888). Per cent of adult victims, once or more times (n = 14,937-33,734).
* Includes worry about mugging, rape, physical attack by a stranger and racially-motivated assault; the single response items were very, fairly, not very, not at all worried
** Annual data collection since 2002, before irregularly.
Source: Office for National Statistics 2022. Crime in England and Wales. Appendix tables, Table A3; Annual supplementary tables, Table S31.
At the beginning of the 2000s, such a parallel downward trend in violent crime and fear of crime was still considered improbable, considering the known trend in data at the time. Given the internationally noticeable crime drop from the 1990s onwards (see Tonry, 2014), it seemed "that rates of 'fear' of crime may climb when the crime rate climbs, but fail to fall when the crime rate falls" (Ditton et al., 2000: 144; see also Innes & Fielding, 2002; Hope, 2003). In studies published since 2010, however, a decline in fear of crime and other attitudes to crime has been reported from the 2000s onwards for Northern and Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and (already since the mid-1990s) North America, but hardly for South America (Eysink Smeets & Foekens, 2018; for Chicago, also since the mid-1990s, Skogan, 2011).
For Germany, there is an ongoing time series on fear of mugging and fear of burglary that started in 1992. On behalf of an insurance company, nationally representative surveys have been conducted annually (R+V Versicherung, 2022; Boers et al., 2017). After the German reunification in 1990, fear of crime reached a very high level of up to 28 percent of very anxious respondents, which was mainly due to the high fear scores in East Germany. Between 1997 and 2022, however, fear of crime fell by a good two-thirds to below ten per cent (Figure 2, with data details; East and West German rates are not displayed separately). The increase between 2013 and 2016 was accompanied by an increase in burglary.
Figure 2: Anxiety about mugging and burglary. Germany 1992-2022. Per cent very anxious* (n = 2,400 in 2022, age 14 and over).
* Value 6 and 7 on a scale ranging from not at all anxious (1) to very anxious (7).
Source: R+V Versicherung, 2022; time series constructed by the author.
For Germany, neither national nor longer time series of self-reported delinquency or self-reported victimisation do exist. However, the available official and self-reported crime data also indicate a considerable decline in violent crime, especially among adolescents, beginning in the 2000s (Baier, 2020; Federal Ministry of the Interior & Federal Ministry of Justice, 2023). Overall, there seems to have been a parallel drop in fear of crime and violent crime in Germany as well, starting in the 2000s at the latest.
Even though the course of the time series is only compared descriptively here, i.e., without further correlative analyses, the parallel decline in fear of crime and violent crime may raise some questions regarding the social-problem perspective. In view of this, can we assume that the fear of crime is based quite essentially on a transfer from other social, political, or economic fears – irrespective of knowledge of the actual prevalence of crime?
Furthermore, the following should be considered as well: in the German surveys, the same respondents were also asked about 21 social, political and economic problems. Over the years, the greatest anxieties have been expressed about the European debt crisis, the cost of living, terrorism, autocratic governments, migration, and climate change; in 2022, the threat of war was added. Even though most of these fears also decreased between 2016 and 2019, they have – unlike the fear of crime – increased significantly again since then (an exception is the fear of “own unemployment”, which has steadily decreased, presumably in view of a quite stable labour market). Most importantly, the levels observed for these social anxieties have regularly been one to two times higher than for fear of crime, and the latter often ranked lowest of all the problems surveyed (R+V Versicherung, 2022; not shown in a chart).
Based on a correlative analysis, it may be that there is an association between fear of crime and other social anxieties in specific subgroups, for example, among respondents who perceive strong social disorganisation in their neighbourhood (Boers, 2003). One could also assume that in times of low fear of crime, the proportion of generally anxious personalities may be significantly elevated among the remaining few who fall into the very anxious category. Besides crime, they might perceive other problems as frightening too. However, this would have to be investigated more closely in the future.
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Office for National Statistics (2022). Crime in England and Wales.https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/crimeinenglandandwalesappendixtables, last accessed 5 July 2023.
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https://www.ruv.de/newsroom/themenspezial-die-aengste-der-deutschen/langzeitvergleich, last accessed 5 July 2023.
Skogan, W.G. (2011). Trends in crime and fear: Lessons from Chicago, 1994-2003. In Karstedt, S., Loader, I. & Strang, H. (Eds.). Emotions, Crime and Justice. Oxford: Hart Publishing, 101-122.
Tonry, M. (Ed.) (2014). Why crime rates fall and why they don’t. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
 Due to the COVID pandemic the CSEW could not collect data on fear of crime for 2021 and 2022, results for 2023 are not yet available.
 The author thanks R+V Versicherung for providing the annual frequencies. The time series were constructed by the author. Their interpretation is the sole view of the author.