German Crime Fears Don’t Match Statistics

(Bloomberg) -- The German crime statistics for 2017 are out, and they show that the country hasn’t been this safe in more than two decades. And yet a large minority of Germans feel less secure than five years ago. This paradox has more to do with psychology than with statistics.

Since the refugee crisis in 2015, the annual data have been hotly debated. The figures for 2017 were no exception, even though Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had good news: Not only did the total number of crimes slide almost 10 percent, to the lowest level since 1992, but violent crime declined by 2.4 percent. Petty crimes were also lower, with an 11.8 percent decline in theft.

“Germany has become safer,” Seehofer said Tuesday.

The 2017 numbers are a vast improvement on those for 2016, when violent crime climbed 6.7 percent and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere lamented that “something is slipping in Germany.” A poll conducted in April of this year showed that 41 percent of Germans hold comparable feelings. Overall, the public’s sense of security has deteriorated in the last five years.

Polls have been registering this pessimistic trend in public opinion for a while. It’s been driven by press reports (for example, an apparent epidemic of knifings in the eastern city of Cottbus this year), by petty crime that affects daily lives and the way people feel about their neighborhoods, as well as anxiety about an extraordinary influx of migrants. 

Although Germans trust their police more than average for rich countries, the statistics showing declining crime have been met with open disbelief. Under the Twitter hashtag #Kriminalstatistik, commentators mocked what they called Seehofer’s “fairy tales.” After all, Chancellor Angela Merkel herself said in February that there were “no-go areas” where no one was safe — a remarkable statement of the kind that, until then, only her far-right opponents from the Alternative for Germany party dared to make.

Police statistics provide some justification for this unease. They show a steady rise in the share of non-German citizens among suspects in recent years. The drop-off in 2017 isn’t enough to indicate a trend reversal.

German Crime Fears Don’t Match Statistics

Another reason the feeling of safety may be deteriorating is the noticeable growth in drug offenses, which were up 9.2 percent last year. 

German Crime Fears Don’t Match Statistics

Even more than petty theft, the open sale of drugs in an area diminishes law-abiding citizens’ feelings of security: It’s difficult not to perceive such activity as a menace. In his recently published autobiography, Klaus Wowereit, the former Berlin mayor who famously described his city as “poor but sexy,” made it clear that highly visible street drug trade wasn’t sexy to him:

At certain underground stations and also in Goerlitzer park normal citizens can watch it happening. And some wonder, rightly, whether the police cannot or do not want to intervene. That creates the impression of law-free spaces.

Germany, of course, is actually extremely safe compared with the country of my birth, Russia, or with the U.S. The 2017 murder rate, less than 1 per 100,000 population, is much lower than the U.S.’s 2016 rate of about 5.3 per 100,000 (there are no official data for last year yet). But it’s impossible to fight individual perceptions with numbers. Crime statistics are so rich and multifaceted that pretty much anyone can dig up figures to support any kind of bias.

Take President Donald Trump’s recent remarks about the supposed prevalence of  knife crime in London, information he apparently gleaned from an article in the U.K. tabloid Daily Mail. Based on the statistics of a particular London hospital, it’s possible to draw conclusions about an epidemic of violence in the British capital, and that would match some Londoners’ intuitive perception. Citing official statistics, which show that the U.K. is much less violent than the U.S. and that London is generally safer than New York (despite a spike in homicides early this year), will only irritate people who trust their own hunches more than they trust official data.

That’s relevant to governments’ crime-fighting strategies. Objective safety, of course, is of utmost importance, but perceptions matter almost as much. That’s why a Danish government proposal earlier this year to double the penalties for crimes committed in “ghetto” areas makes sense. So does soft drug legalization, which would ruin street dealers and with them the perception that “no-go areas” exist in extremely safe cities like Berlin. With smart policies, the perceived crime rate can be lowered faster than the actual one.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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