Friday, August 31, 2012

In the eye of the beholder


Fear and risk are two very different things. Solving one does not always solve the other.

I live in one of the most livable towns in the country. It has a variety of bookstores, an active and safe teen skate park, accommodation for the elderly, alternative housing options like cohousing, and two local industries.

There are over 40 restaurants for just 8,000 people (obviously a tourist town) and a festival every weekend from spring till winter. It has one of the most successful farmers markets and a vibrant and architecturally interesting downtown.

There hasn't been a murder in the city for decades and last year there were 52 violent crimes (mostly minor assaults) in the county with about 29,000 residents producing a county violence rate of 17 violent incidents per 100,000 residents.

In short, it is safe and vibrant.

Gotham City crime

New York City is also one of the most vibrant cities in the country and by every meaningful measure, it dwarfs my town. It has thousands of restaurants, bookstores, festivals, and every other amenity imaginable serving a city of over 8 million. It has a lower crime rate than most large cities. Yet, in comparison to my town the violent crime rate last year in NYC was 55 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.

In other words, the violent crime rate there was three times higher than here.

Yet a former neighbor, a young woman who lived in New York until recently, describes feeling much safer on New York streets than here. She is more concerned about walking home in the dark here than walking there even though her actual risk is 3 times higher (To be fair I doubt she knew the different rates, only how she felt).

Why?

The Truth about Risk

Perception and risk are two entirely different animals. I have spent many years working in high crime places. I learn about the cues of environment, attitude of the locals, and actual crime risks. My first lesson - we may feel safe but not be so.

This week I read a great blog about crime risk by Sam Harris titled The Truth about Violence. He cites four basic safety principles including how to avoid dangerous places and people.

Harris also describes a truism about us: It is unpleasant to study the details of crime and violence—and for this reason many of us never do. I am convinced, however, that some planning and preparation can greatly reduce a person’s risk.

I agree.

Read Harris's blog. It's worthwhile.

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