Sociologist Says Fear of Crime Out Of Proportion

Jun 21, 2012

The most recent CityStats survey released by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation said that residents are more scared and more concerned that crime will become worse, despite overall crime in the city declining.

LSU Professor of Sociology Edward Shihadeh. (WRKF)

To find out why that is, WRKF's Ashley Westerman spoke with LSU Professor of Sociology Edward Shihadeh about the study.

And he said the fear of crime is typically out of proportion with actual crime stats.

SHIHADEH: People are more fearful about crime in Baton Rouge because what happened is crime did spike. The fear, however, out there is a response not to the real numbers but to the public concern and the media coverage -- that's what people are really reacting to. And it's very common, by the way, for fear of crime not to track with actual crime rates because when they start seeing stories on TV, they start telling each other stories about what's happened to their neighbor or somebody got their house broken into and so on, these stories spread like wildfire and it gets people very, very fearful.

WESTERMAN: Can you tell me just a little bit about some of the root causes of crime in Baton Rouge?

SHIHADEH: Well, there's a number of causes of crime in Baton Rouge. I would link them number one to poverty. I would also link them to the rise in what I call "floaters".

Floaters is a term in the literature that I coined and it refers to young men of crime-prone age who are simultaneously not employed, not in the labor force, not in the military, not in school and really not connected to anything in our community.

In Baton Rouge, here's the interesting thing... Of course we've seen crime on the rise and we assumed like everybody else, that there was this increase after Katrina. But when we go back and look at the trends, in fact, the rise in crime in Baton Rouge actually began in 2003, two years before Katrina. Why did it begin to rise in 2003? I'm speculating on something here that we're going to begin research on. I suspect that it's a two-part thing: one there's a rise in number of floaters but the second question becomes, "Well, why all of a sudden are we having high numbers of floaters and high numbers of these people?" And so what we're going to be looking at and what I suspect is going on is that is that 15 to 17 years earlier we got a spike in teen fertility. And when teens have kids, those kids are very vulnerable to poverty, they're vulnerable neglect, they're vulnerable to abuse, and 15 to 17 years later those kids are going to be of crime-prone and walking our streets and I suspect that's what's going on here, that's one of the things.

WESTERMAN: What are some of the things that the government and police are doing right? Or are they part of the problem?

SHIHADEH: Oh no, here in Baton Rouge actually I am quite impressed with the collective effort and the collective will to bring crime down. I'm normally pretty cynical about some of these government efforts and so on. And I also understand the limitations of police because they have a tough job and it's like, some days it's like beating the ocean back with a fork. But I have been in the meetings with the police, with the DA's office, with other agencies and there is a collective cooperative effort, a very organized one, to bring crime down. I can't go into details, but I can assure you that it is a very bad time to be a criminal in Baton Rouge.

WESTERMAN: What are some things that people can do in their daily lives to make them feel safer or lessen their chances of becoming a victim of crime or, maybe, lessen the chances of a family member committing a crime?

SHIHADEH: I would ask people to put it in perspective that what you hear on television, just because it's possible, doesn't necessarily mean it's probable and that it's right around the corner and that it's just going to happen. Along with that I would discourage people from reacting too strongly to this fear. Don't go out and arm yourself to the teeth and fill your yard with flood lamps like a prison compound and buy noisy dogs that bark and so on.

It's still, statistically speaking, it's a safe place to live. It's not a war zone where you're going to get hit. The fear of crime is out of proportion with the actual crime rates.

WESTERMAN: Alright, well thank you for coming in today.

SHIHADEH: It's been my pleasure.

**Special Thanks to our intern Michael Gautreaux for helping with this report.