Canadian crime up, police confidence down? The facts hidden in perceptions

The Angus Reid Institute released national public opinion survey results on January 10, 2020 with the headline “Half of Canadians say crime is rising in their
communities, as confidence in police, courts wanes.” Angus Reid is a reputable firm with solid statistical methodology.  Nothing wrong with the data as stated. But there are a dozen devils lurking in the details.

Think about this finding from the survey: In January of this year 15% of all respondents agreed that “in the past two years” they have been a “victim of a crime which involved the police, such as an assault, a break-in or some other type of crime.” That’s up from 13% who agreed in 2018 and the 10% who agreed in 2016.

Here’s the puzzle:

  • The survey shows that 15 out of 100 people have been a victim of any kind of crime no matter how big or small as long as it involved calling the police. And 85 out of 100 agreed they have not.
  • The survey also shows that almost half of Canadians (48%) agreed there “has been an increase in the amount of crime” in their community.
  • So while only 15 out of 100 Canadians have been a victim of a police-involved crime in the past two years, 48 out of 100 think that crime is up in their community. How would they know such a thing if they didn’t experience it?
  • And is this perception of crime going up the likely reason that 57% of Canadians agreed in the survey that they have confidence in their “local municipal police or local RCMP detachment (down from 63% in 2018)?

Here are some answers:

  • Numerous surveys over the years show that most people get most of their information about community crime NOT from personal experience but from traditional news media. In fact data from Google Trends shows the rate of Canadians searching internet sources for crime news has dramatically increased in recent years, far exceeding actual crime rates.
  • News media crime stories by their nature are usually about fearful, scary and bad things happening. The fact is we as humans remember scary and bad things far longer and deeper than good news. That’s simply the nature of our protective brain circuits.
  • The conclusion is that public opinion agreeing that crime is going up is likely far more about perceptions delivered by the increased volumn of news and social media coverage than about crime actually going up. Indeed the Angus Reid report accurately shows that Canada’s Crime Severity Index is only marginally up for both violent and non-violent crimes after languishing for years.

And so the bottom line to the latest poll by Angus Reid is not so much that “Half of Canadians say crime is rising in their communities, as confidence in police, courts wanes” as “Perception of crime rates and police performance distorted by increased volumn of public internet news searches.”