Less Crime, More Fear
CRIME can be a hard subject to think clearly about, especially in the aftermath of a particularly disturbing murder. Politics rarely helps to bring the real issues into focus. Asked by reporters last week about the horrific death of Tim McLean, the 22-year-old Winnipeg man who was stabbed and then beheaded by another passenger on a bus travelling a lonely stretch of Manitoba highway, Public Safety Minister Stockwell DAY took the opportunity to call for the case to be prosecuted "as aggressively as possible" - as if there was some reason to imagine the authorities might go easy on the killer.
It's this sort of front-page outrage, with a bit of political spin thrown in, that causes criminologists who pore over crime data to worry about the gap between public perceptions and facts. The most recent STATISTICS CANADA report on crime, released on July 17, showed that the national rate fell in 2007 to its lowest level in three decades. And the decline is very broadly based. Most offences - from break-ins to homicides - are down. Most places - including every province but Newfoundland, and all of the nine biggest Canadian cities - reported lower crime rates last year than the year before.
But the numbers haven't done anything to quiet those inclined to tell a more alarming crime story. Victims' rights groups, some police, and, especially, the Tory government, all put more emphasis on popular impressions than dry data. "I don't think there's any question there are positive indicators out there," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in an interview when asked about the reassuring statistics. "But concern about crime in general is something I get everywhere that I go. I don't think this is illusory, I don't think it's imaginative. There are people in many parts of this country that are feeling less safe."
The disconnect between statistics showing less crime, and public fear that society is growing more violent, might seem impossible to reconcile. But there is a way to look at the figures that sees some truth in both perspectives. One place to start is by pondering the unsettling data for the most serious types of assault. While most crime was on the wane between 1998 and 2007, assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm climbed steadily year after year, posting a dramatic 32.3 per cent rise over the decade. The total number of these "assault level two" incidents in 2007 was 53,986, or 164 for every 100,000 people. In the same period, the far less frequent, but even more brutal, category called "aggravated assault" rose 18.6 per cent, to 3,403 incidents reported by police last year, although the rate for this "assault level three" category rose less constantly.
Experts on crime trends aren't sure how to explain more violent assaults in a less crime-ridden society. Some criminologists speculate that there might be something misleading in those figures. They certainly stand out. After all, between 1998 and 2007, the rate of homicide fell 5.3 per cent, continuing a downward trend that began in the 1970s. Robbery was down 6.5 per cent, and the rate of sexual assault dropped 23 per cent. Even the mildest sort of assault, which used to be called common assault and is now known as "level one assault" - somebody, say, punching, slapping, or shoving somebody else - dropped by nearly 11 per cent over the 10-year period.
But when it comes to an assailant stabbing, brutally beating, or striking a victim with whatever weapon came to hand, Statistics Canada's findings indicate such attacks are markedly up. Police aren't surprised. Inspector Mike Porteous, head of the Vancouver Police Department's major crime unit, says the data confirms his long experience in some rough neighbourhoods. He says vicious attacks, rather than mere drunken brawling, have grown much more common over 10 or 15 years. "Back in the day, if I went out to a bar, and there was a dispute, it would end up with a fist fight," Porteous says. "We increasingly see now that it ends up with a stabbing. Or another very popular one is a broken beer bottle or glass to the face. Or a shooting."
Several criminologists interviewed by Maclean's warned against uncritically accepting that sort of anecdotal account from police. Still, at least one well-regarded criminology professor, Neil Boyd of Simon Fraser University, suggests an explanation for rising rates of serious assaults that could mesh neatly with Porteous's street-level view. Boyd says violence is getting worse among the most vulnerable in society, even as most Canadians are demonstrably growing less likely to find themselves the victims of crime.
That broader picture of declining crime includes the sorts of offences middle-class Canadians, who live and work in good areas, might reasonably be most concerned about. The rate of breaking and entering, for instance, dropped nearly 40 per cent between 1998 and 2007, and car thefts fell during the same period by just under 20 per cent. Yet over the same 10 years, drug-related violence, often associated with criminal gangs, was a growing problem in the worst zones of some cities.
Boyd says victims in those troubled neighbourhoods are most likely the gang members themselves, or illegal drug buyers, or others who by choice or chance find themselves in close proximity to dangerous young men. "We are safer, most of us," Boyd says. "But if you are part of that lifestyle, or if you are vulnerable to this kind of crime, you are more likely to be victimized. And it's hard to distinguish the victims from the offenders in those circumstances."
Of course violent criminals can hurt anyone. But the most recent detailed survey of crime victims by Statistics Canada, based on 2004 figures, showed that unemployed young people are the most at risk, and the danger rises sharply among those who go out frequently to bars or other "evening activities." Not surprisingly, violent crime was much less likely to touch older, married individuals, especially those in higher income brackets.
The notion of a sharply divided picture of crime in Canada - less reason to worry for the average citizen, more cause for fear among those on the margins - is not one that often makes its way into political debate. Law-and-order politics are all about reassuring law-abiding taxpayers who tend to vote, and coming down hard on the thugs who might threaten them. If the reality is more complex, the political sell is trickier.
It's not just the assault statistics that suggest the possibility of two quite different trends in crime. Data on young people also suggest less crime overall, but more of the worst sort. Last year, the youth crime rate dropped by two per cent, but that decline was entirely in non-violent offences. Violent crimes committed by youth remained stable in 2007. In fact, since the mid-1980s the violent crime rate for youth has been steadily rising, even though property crime committed by youth has been trending down.
YOUTH CRIME is bound to emerge within the next few months as a higher-profile issue. Up to now, the Conservatives have focused on adult criminals, passing new laws to impose longer mandatory sentences for serious gun crimes and making it harder for those accused of serious crimes to get out on bail while awaiting trial. But Nicholson told Maclean's his current review of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, enacted five years ago by the Liberals, will result in get-tough amendments this fall. "This is an area," he said, "that is of particular concern to Canadians."
He's almost certainly right about that. The stubbornly high youth violent-crime rate is closely associated with highly publicized, drug-related gang activity, which might, in turn, be partly behind the rise in violent assaults. But will tough-on-crime measures make a difference? Rosemary Gartner, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, says comparing the recent Canadian and U.S. experience suggests otherwise. Crime rates in both countries have been declining in tandem since the 1990s. In the U.S., Gartner says, criminologists often attribute that trend to zero-tolerance policing, like the approach famously pioneered in New York City, and throwing more criminals in prison for longer. "I tell them Canada is not imprisoning more people," Gartner says. "And we haven't instituted zero-tolerance police policies. But put the crime graphs for Canada against the graphs for the U.S., and you see exactly the same thing."
Gartner says experts don't really have any tidy explanations for the continent-wide decline in crime, so it's hardly surprising that exceptions like the rise in violent assaults are even harder to explain. "Looking for a single factor," she cautions, "is always dangerous and will inevitably be shown to be wrong." She suggests that a mix of cultural, economic, and demographic factors are affecting crime rates. That's far too nuanced and tentative, though, to fit neatly in a political speech. This fall's debate on youth crime will, no doubt, make it all sound much simpler.
Maclean's August 18, 2008