Fear of Crime: A Problem Oriented Solution

Joseph Dule, University of New Haven

Since the late 1960’s, fear of crime has become one of the most heavily politicized issues in American society.  Research consistently shows that personal fear of crime is associated with increased levels of anxiety, withdrawal from social activities, decline in social integration, and changes to daily personal behaviors (Zhao, Lawton, & Longmire, 2015).  Consequently, cities have become increasingly proactive in trying to improve their attractiveness, livability, and overall vitality.  Reducing fear of crime has become an integral part of this strategy, as it is believed that the creation of safe and enjoyable city centers and downtown areas will also attract more visitors and boost consumer spending (Brands, Schwanen, & Aalst, 2013). 

What remains widely undisputed is that high fear of crime in society is not healthy, and generates negative personal and neighborhood consequences. What remains less clear, however, is an understanding of which policies actually reduce fear of crime, have no impact, or make the problem worse.  The most common governmental approach to reduce fear of crime has been to increase surveillance and policing efforts (Brands, Schwanen, & Aalst, 2013).  This paper will attempt to elucidate the impact policing measures have on fear of crime, as well as some of their more general crime reduction benefits.

General Research Findings on Fear of Crime

Research generally finds that people who are victims of crime tend to report higher levels of fear of crime than their non-victim counterparts (Zhao, Lawton, & Longmire, 2015).  Also, certain demographic variables are associated with higher levels of fear of crime.  Specifically, women and the elderly report on average higher levels of fear of crime—a finding typically attributed to their understandable feelings of increased physical vulnerability (Clemente & Kleiman, 1977).  Women may also fear for their children more than men; consequently, they may be more likely in their estimates to extend their personal fear of victimization to their fear for their children’s safety (War & Ellison, 2000).


Social vulnerability factors (e.g., race and class) also have shown to be associated with greater fear of crime.  For instance, Melde (2009) found that minorities were more likely to fear crime than whites.  A separate study consisting of a nationally representative sample of 2,610 respondents in the U.S. investigated the relationship that physical and social vulnerability factors have with fear of crime.  The research findings support the notion that both physical (gender, age, and health) and social vulnerabilities (race, education, and marital status) are significant predictors of fear of crime.  More specifically, women, minorities (blacks and hispanics), non-married, the elderly, lower income, and people of fair or poor health self-report the highest levels of personal fear of crime (Rader, Cossman, & Porter, 2012). 


Although this may sound counter-intuitive, it is not clear that fear of crime is associated with actual crime rates.  Numerous studies have found there to be little or no relationship between the two, or that fear of crime may go up as crime rates climb, but fear often fails to drop (at a similar rate) when crime rates decline (Lewis & Salem, 1986).  For example, national survey data from the Gallup organization reveals that fear of crime among Americans steadily declined from 1994 through 1998, but then began increasing again in 1999 and has continued to rise since then. So, while actual crime has decreased, perceptions of the amount of crime have increased, with fear of crime at almost an all-time high in 2013 (Johnson, 2015).  It has been suggested that fear of crime is more strongly associated with the aforementioned social and physical vulnerability factors than with actual crime rates (Hinkle & Weisburd, 2012).


The Policing Approach to Reduce Fear of Crime


The relatively weak relationship found between actual crime and perceived fear of crime influenced what Wilson and Kelling (1982) refer to as their “Incivilities Thesis,” which holds that unintended disorder makes residents fearful, as they infer that social control has broken down within the neighborhood.  Consequently, residents are more likely to withdraw from the community, which further lowers informal social control.  This is then believed to generate more crime, as criminals believe they are less likely to get caught, given the decline of social controls (i.e., neighbors are not watching out for each other and are less likely to intervene.) 


The Incivilities Thesis influenced many policing strategies throughout the U.S. over the past several decades; within the policing community it became commonly known as “Broken Windows.”  In short, the approach argues that simple disorder indicators (e.g., broken windows) are inherently crime-promoting.  Further, disorder suggests a lack of rule of law, and therefore even minor social disorder problems require police intervention, because if left unaddressed, disorder will inexorably lead to more (and more serious) crime (Wilson & Kelling 1982). 


Empirical Findings on the Relationship Between Fear of Crime, Disorder, & Policing


The Incivilities Thesis is still very relevant to modern discussions on fear of crime. In fact, numerous studies have found a relationship between disorder and fear of crime, and in some models “disorder” was found to generate the strongest predictor of fear of crime (Robinson et al., 2003).  A separate study that examined the impact of focused police crackdowns in New Jersey in 2004 and 2006 found that perceived disorder and observed level of physical disorder have a strong impact on fear of crime.  Something ironic and important also was found: Intensive enforcement efforts and “crackdowns” actually increased fear of crime, and offset any of the benefits of reduced social and physical disorder (Hinkle & Weisburd, 2008).      


If steps are taken to raise public awareness, however, then intensive enforcement efforts may not always lead to increased fear of crime.  For instance, the seminal Kansas City Gun Experiment (Sherman & Rogan, 1995) helps shed light on how law enforcement can help play a role in reducing fear of crime where intensive enforcement efforts are taking place.  Specifically, the experiment sought to reduce gun violence, drive-by shootings, and violence by placing extra patrols of police in gun crime “hot spots.”  Ultimately, the intervention fell short of being considered “effective” (Crime Solutions, 2012).   However, although the experiment was not designed to reduce fear of crime, it actually did in places where police conducted the experimental “targets beats” while also conducting door to door visits to solicit tips about illegal guns (Shaw, 1995).  The effects were reportedly small, and do not distinguish whether or not it was the increased police presence or the visits themselves that contributing to reductions in fear of crime.  Nonetheless, these findings are generally consistent with other studies that involved increasing community/police interactions (Hinkle & Weisburd, 2008), suggesting that increased police-community interaction helps to manage public perceptions of crime.  Although it remains unclear as to precisely how fear of crime was reduced (e.g., visits or increased policing) in the Kansas City Experiment, it may have been that the visits helped to reduce any alarm citizens had over the boost in intensive policing within their neighborhoods.


A separate study in Houston, TX, required police to stop twice during their shift to meet residents in their homes, or business people at their stores or offices, while a police intervention was underway within their high crime neighborhoods.  The encounters were brief (approximately 10 minutes) and the police simply asked about any neighborhood problems that they should be aware of.  They also left their business cards with the residents.  In response, fear of crime reduced significantly within neighborhoods that experienced these police-citizen encounters.  Similar findings also were found in ten other studies that utilized some variation of this activity (Zhao, 2002).


Aside from reducing fear of crime, interventions that target social and physical disorder can ameliorate crime more generally.  For example, a recent 2015 systemic review and meta-analysis that tested the effects of 30 randomized and quasi-experimental tests of disorder policing found that these types of interventions can generate statistically significant reductions in crime (Braga, Welsh & Schnell, 2015).  However, benefits occur under one very important caveat: The strongest program effect sizes were generated by community and problem-solving interventions designed to change social and physical disorder conditions at particular places.  Interventions that involved aggressive order maintenance targeting individual disorderly behaviors did not generate significant crime benefits (Braga, Welsh, Schnell, 2015).  In effect, the type and quality of the disorder strategy being implemented matters.   


Another widespread assumption is that community-oriented policing reduces fear of crime. Community-oriented policing (COP) is a philosophy of policing that emphasizes community involvement in crime prevention efforts, in contrast to the focus of traditional policing on law enforcement and order maintenance.  The assumption that COP reduces citizen fear of crime is not supported within the empirical literature.  A 2014 systemic review on community-oriented policing found that these strategies do not reduce fear of crime, nor were they shown to reduce actual official crime rates (Gill et al., 2014).  This review consisted of 65 independent tests of community-oriented policing, although only 10 incorporated fear of crime measures.




First, a problem-oriented policing approach that targets social and physical disorder can reduce fear of crime and crime more generally.  However, benefits—both fear of crime reduction and crime reduction—are only likely to occur when there is community buy-in to the intervention itself.  In short, citizens have to know why the intervention is taking place and deem it to be legitimate.  Law enforcement must therefore reach out to citizens (e.g., knock on doors, post on social media, etc.) and make every effort to broadcast explicitly the purpose of the intervention.  Furthermore, the conditions should be discussed with the public more broadly, and not unilaterally imposed. 


Second, efforts should be made to avoid invasive crackdowns that target individual disorders, or crackdowns that occur without community knowledge and consent, as these will produce no crime reduction benefits and may actually increase fear of crime.  It may be that the sudden spike in police presence may lead residents to infer that crime has actually increased and that their neighborhood is more dangerous than it has been in the past.  Greater interaction between law enforcement and citizens can help temper any fears about rising crime in the area, which is what might be perceived when more police are publicly available. 


Third, it is important to recognize that a substantial portion of citizen fear of crime is influenced heavily by demographic factors (i.e., gender, age, class, health status, and race), and fear also does not correlate with actual crime rates.   Expect fear of crime to be less malleable across vulnerable population groups, whose fears may be shaped by a variety of external factors,  which law enforcement alone cannot realistically address.  Separately, just because crime rates are actually declining in a city does not mean that citizens will report feeling safer.  Accordingly, addressing fear of crime should be treated as a separate goal in and of itself.   


In summary, lowering fear of crime enhances the livability and wellbeing of city residents, and law enforcement can play an important role in helping to accomplish this task.  Strategies that are problem-oriented and involve strong citizen input and awareness are most likely to succeed.  Not only have these interventions been demonstrably shown to reduce fear, but they also consistently generate general crime reduction benefits.           




Braga, A. A., Welsh, B. C., & Schnell, C. (2015). Can policing disorder reduce crime? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency52(4), 567-588.


This study identified 30 randomized experimental and quasi-experimental tests of disorder policing.  The findings suggest that policing disorder strategies are associated with an overall statistically significant, modest crime reduction effect.


Brands, J., Schwanen, T., & Van Aalst, I. (2013). Fear of crime and affective ambiguities in the night-time economy. Urban Studies52(3), 439-455.


This article analyses fear of crime in the night-time economy.  The article explores how lighting, policing, and the presence of ‘undesired others’ affect fear. 


Clemente, F., & Kleiman, M. (1977). Fear of crime in the United States: A multivariate analysis. Social Forces, 56, 107-131


This study employs five variables central to the victimization literature (sex, race, age, socioeconomic status, and community size) in an effort to assess the independent ability of each variable to predict fear of crime.  Findings indicated that sex and city size are strong predictors of fear.


Gill, C., Weisburd, D., Telep, C. W., Vitter, Z., & Bennett, T. (2014). Community oriented policing to reduce crime, disorder and fear and increase satisfaction and legitimacy among citizens: A systematic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology10(4), 399-428.


This research systematically reviews and synthesizes the existing research on community-oriented policing to identify its effects on crime, disorder, fear, citizen satisfaction, and police legitimacy.  The findings suggest that community-oriented policing strategies have positive effects on citizen satisfaction, perceptions of disorder, and police legitimacy, but limited effects on crime and fear of crime.


Hinkle, J. C., & Weisburd, D. (2008). The irony of broken windows policing: A micro-place study of the relationship between disorder, focused police crackdowns and fear of crime. Journal of Criminal Justice36(6), 503-512.


This study aimed to improve knowledge of the relationship between disorder and fear of crime in the context of the broken windows hypothesis by using a micro-place level research design involving a police crackdown on disorder and minor crime at hot spots. The results of the current study suggest that perceived social disorder and observed levels of physical disorder have a strong impact on fear of crime.


Lewis, D. A., & Salem, G. (1986). Fear of crime. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.


The authors examine the fear of crime in ten neighborhoods in Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia which represent the range of communities typically found in urban areas. The authors contend that fear of crime is not related to exposure or knowledge about criminal events alone, but also stems from residents’ concerns about changes in their neighborhoods.


Johnson, Richard. (2015).  Reducing Fear of Crime and Increasing Citizen Support for Police.  September.  Received from http://www.patc.com/weeklyarticles/print/2015_johnson_reducingfear.pdf (accessed 1 May 2018)


This paper addresses the research evidence on what law enforcement agencies, and their officers, can do to reduce citizen fears about crime and disorder in local neighborhoods.


Melde, C. (2009). Lifestyle, rational choice, and adolescent fear: A test of a risk- assessment framework. Criminology, 47, 781–812.


This paper examines as to whether or not a delinquent lifestyle influences fear of crime. The findings suggest that increased involvement in a delinquent lifestyle is  associated strongly with an increase in victimization over time, no such association exists with the perceived risk of victimization.


Rader, N. E., Cossman, J. S., & Porter, J. R. (2012). Fear of crime and vulnerability: Using a national sample of Americans to examine two competing paradigms. Journal of Criminal Justice40(2), 134-141.


This study explores how whether the physical or the social vulnerability factors are more powerful in explaining fear of crime.  Results suggest that the two explanations are interdependent to some degree; with the direct effects of social vulnerability being most tied to physical indicators of vulnerability through indirect effects. To a lesser degree, the direct effects of physical vulnerability are also tied to fear of crime indirectly through indicators of social vulnerability.


Robinson, J. B., Lawton, B. A., Taylor, R. B., & Perkins, D. D. (2003). Multilevel longitudinal impacts of incivilities: Fear of crime, expected safety, and block satisfaction. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 19, 237−274.


This paper tests individual and street block-level impacts on reactions to crime and local commitment over time.  At the individual level, incivilities showed unambiguous, lagged impacts on satisfaction, fear, and worry; furthermore, changes in perceived incivilities accompanied changes in resident satisfaction and fear. At the street block level: incivilities failed to demonstrate expected lagged impacts on either of the two outcomes where data structures permitted such impacts.


Shaw, J. W. (1995). Community policing against guns: Public opinion of the Kansas City gun experiment. Justice Quarterly, 12, 695−710.


This study examines the community reaction to police efforts in Kansas City. The findings show that the community was aware of the enhanced policing, that proactive police methods, generally, received strong support, and that residents perceived an improvement in the quality of life in the experimental neighborhood. 


Sherman, L. W., & Rogan, D. P. (1995). Effects of gun seizures on gun violence: “Hot spots” patrol in Kansas City. Justice Quarterly, 12, 673−693.


This study tested the hypothesis that greater enforcement of existing laws against carrying concealed weapons could reduce firearms violence with a quasi-experimental, target beat/comparison beat design.  The findings were that crimes declined significantly in the target area; however, neither gun crimes nor guns seized changed significantly in the comparison beat several miles away


Warr, M., & Ellison, C. G. (2000). Rethinking social reactions to crime: Personal and altruistic fear in family households. American Journal of Sociology, 106, 551.


This paper uses survey data to reveal that altruistic fear (fear for others) has a distinctive structure in family households and is more common and often more intense than personal fear.  This paper sheds light on additional demographic factors that influence personal and altruistic fear of crime.  


Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982). Broken windows. Atlantic Monthly, 211, 29−38.


This paper details out the Incivilities Thesis, which argues that disorder and incivility within a community leads to subsequent occurrences of more serious crime.


Zhao, J. S., Lawton, B., & Longmire, D. (2015). An examination of the micro-level crime–fear of crime link. Crime & Delinquency61(1), 19-44.


This study examines the relationship between crime and fear of crime using data collected from a random telephone survey of local residents in the city of Houston.  The findings suggest that a person’s proximity to crime incidents has a significant impact on fear of crime among respondents interviewed.


Zhao, J., Scheider, M., & Thurman, Q. (2002). The effect of police presence on public fear reduction and satisfaction: a review of the literature. The Justice Professional, 15(3), 273-299.


This paper details the extent to which the presence of the police reduces public fear of crime. Separately, it examines the link between police presence and public satisfaction with the police.  The authors argue that police presence does have a strong impact on public fear reduction. In addition, proactive or/and community policing strategies appear to us to demonstrate the strongest impact on fear reduction among residents.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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