Perception And Reality

Here in Indianapolis, where the candidates for Mayor in this November’s election are spending unbelievable amounts of money on political advertisements (and not just television–You Tube, FaceBook, etc. etc.), there has been an overwhelming messaging focus on crime from the Republican candidate.

In a line that reminds this old-timer of Nixon, the Republican candidate–one Jefferson Shreve– assures us that he “has a plan.” Meanwhile, the effectiveness of his message depends upon voters agreeing that Indianapolis is a dystopian hellhole, where criminals roam the streets murdering people with abandon.  

I live in the urban core of this “hellhole,” and I feel quite safe–a feeling backed up by local crime data– so I welcomed this explanation of mis-matches between perception and reality in a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman.

Remember “American carnage?” Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address was peculiar in many ways, but one of the most striking oddities was his obsession with a problem — urban crime — that had greatly diminished over the past generation. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, violent crime in America fell rapidly from around 1990 to the mid-2010s:

True, there was a crime surge after the pandemic, which now seems to be ebbing. But that lay in the future. Trump talked as if crime was running rampant as he spoke.

Yet if Trump had false beliefs about trends in crime, he had plenty of company. Gallup polls Americans about crime every year, and all through the great decline in violent crime a majority of Americans said that crime was increasing:

Contrary to the widespread belief that criminal behavior was on the rise, Krugman pointed to the reams of evidence showing that even people who responded–and evidently believed– that crime was rising were behaving as if it was falling. That was especially true when considering the wave of gentrification–the movement of large numbers of affluent Americans into those presumably scary central cities. 

Krugman compared that mismatch of perception and reality to another current example–the disconnect between Americans’ attitudes about the economy and their own situations. The data shows that we Americans are relatively upbeat about our own financial circumstances; but we’re certain that a bad economy is harming other people–perhaps not locally, but nationally.

I thought it might be useful to draw parallels with the discourse on crime, where there is a similar disconnect between what people tell pollsters they believe is happening and what the available facts say. In fact, the resemblance between how people talk about crime and how they talk about the economy is eerily strong.

I know his next observation will shock you, but it turns out that both of these “mismatches” are grounded in partisanship. As Krugman notes, perceptions of crime, like perceptions about the economy, have become strongly partisan.

People become more pessimistic when the party they don’t support holds the White House, and that same partisanship undoubtedly explains the disconnect between perception and reality of crime in cities–both one’s own city, and urban America in general. 

As it happens, the Republican perception of Los Angeles and New York as unsafe compared with southern cities is wildly off base. Both have low homicide rates — half as high as Miami’s — and New York City is overall one of the safest places in America.

What does all this tell us, besides the fact that Americans are very confused about crime? It shows that on an important public issue, people can hold beliefs about what is happening to other people — people who live in other places, or in the nation as a whole — that are not just false but also at odds with their personal experience.

It isn’t just beliefs about people who live elsewhere. If those interminable campaign spots tell us anything, it’s that at least some inhabitants of my city feel considerably less safe than I do.

It will be interesting to see how our local campaign for Mayor plays out, and whether the Republican candidate’s effort to focus on fear of and belief in rampant crime–to the exclusion of the multiple other issues of municipal governance he might be discussing–succeeds in ousting the incumbent.

If it does (count me a doubter–among other things, in his ads, Shreve comes across as rather creepy), it will be really interesting to see whether his vague, much touted “plan” suddenly becomes concrete (not to mention municipally affordable), and whether it makes residents believe that Indianapolis has become less dangerous.

In all fairness, Nixon’s “plan” did eventually get the U.S. out of Viet Nam….


  1. Is it fair to think people who believe replacement theory also have an inordinate fear of non-white citizens. In their minds more minorities is more crime.

  2. Agree Shreve is creepy – and a scary doppleganger of Hogsett… what’s up with that?!. That aside, the huge gap in messaging to me (on both sides) is that it is the Republican-led legislature that is in control of and puts a kabosh on any sensible gun laws. Ain’t Hogsett’s doing.

  3. In my little near east side neighborhood change for the better came when the property owners gave up their perceptions for reality. Hiding behind locked doors and closed curtains so as not to have to get involved gave way to “see something / say something”, or in our case, call the cops.
    Several neighborhood meetings were called with the police and prosecutors office in attendance, more outdoor lighting installed, security cameras installed, and good neighbors stepping up and taking a stand. We now have a quiet, sweet little piece of the city as safe as any place in Marion County.
    I doubt that Mr. Shreve has ever lived in an inner-city much less has a knowledge of how such places work.
    And if he has a “plan”, where is it?

  4. News report that Trump has now decided police should shoot shoplifters when they leave the store would fit in with Shreve’s views of crime here and the MAGA, Freedom Caucus solution.

    “In all fairness, Nixon’s “plan” did eventually get the U.S. out of Viet Nam….” If anyone is familiar with the Pentagon Papers they are aware this was a last ditch effort by Nixon to clean up his legacy before retiring to be pardoned by his hand-picked VP Gerald Ford.

    Information from neighbors in my small development (5 short streets) in the shadow of Raytheon with only one way in and out; last Wednesday night a number of homes and vehicles on East 17th Street were burglarized and three vehicles on East 19th Street across the street from my home. Unlike Theresa’s small neighborhood, my neighbors are still hiding behind locked doors and closed curtains. There are two houses on East 17th Street where two black families with small children live across the street from one another; I always smiled, waved and said hello to the kids and the adults who were out. It has been 2-3 weeks since I have seen anyone outside the darkened windows of both homes; no idea what brought about the change but I am deeply sorry to see it happen.

  5. My filter assumes that all screen media products and their distribution are Capitalism designed entertainment aimed to redistribute wealth up. That’s the purpose of, and the motivation behind, capitalism.

    Facts are generally distributed by taxpayer-funded socialistic government, required to tell the truth as well as humans can distinguish it, in order to serve everybody under their jurisdiction.

    There is of course the Internet. Some of both.

  6. Nixon’s only plan was his southern strategy, which did work for him, and Reagan.
    The people who fear replacement are apt to believe anything negative about “them,” and are easy pickings for BS/propaganda about crime. And, it might just be that the rural/urban divide plays into the fear of crime on the part of the rural “real”Americans.

  7. Indianapolis has a higher rate of violent crimes than Chicago, so many may consider the reality that Indy isn’t very safe. It’s even more dangerous than New York. From Bard: “Yes, Indianapolis has a higher crime rate than Chicago, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data. In 2020, Indianapolis had a crime rate of 871 violent crimes per 100,000 people, while Chicago had a crime rate of 771 violent crimes per 100,000 people. This means that Indianapolis had a 13% higher crime rate than Chicago in 2020.”

    Maybe, the Republican candidate will move all the white people from the donut ring around Indy to inside I-465. LOL

    If one were to pinpoint crime, I guess it’s concentrated in the predominately minority areas where gangs are prominent.

    Republicans are fearmongers. The R candidate has many Fox viewers clinching their bibles and scared to death about all the crime in Indy. Maybe he should take his plan to Indy’s PD and share it with them. We’d love to hear what the Chief of Police says about his plan.

    The Hamilton County Chamber of Commerce endorses the above opinion. 😉

  8. Crime makes news and eyeballs and clicks. Even NextDoor here is full of it. Our decent (still barely around) local/regional newspaper even has a weekly column listing murders…

  9. Shreve “has a plan.” TFG also had a great, beautiful healthcare plan that would roll out “in two weeks.” Smoke and mirrors. Nothing to see here, folks—literally!—so move along.

  10. The republican marketing team has found that constantly pushing the fear of ‘anything and everything’ brings their party members to the polls to cast their votes. They have Fox and Newsmax to spread their BS 24/7 into the tiny minds of their devotees. Even the major news networks ABC, NBC and CBS focus on sensational topics to get the audience’s attention and this keeps the viewers upset or angry or both.

  11. I live in another part of that urban “hellhole”. An active group of very diverse neighbors live quiet, mostly crime-free lives because we reach out to each other, keep our eyes and ears alert to anyone needing help, try to be good neighbors caring about the neighborhood and its residents. Our biggest issue is absentee landlords who apparently have little interest in the condition of their assets other than the income it generates for them as they enjoy their wealth out of state. Renters don’t stay long. When the lease is up, they move on when the rent goes up but the maintenance is seldom gets done.
    Shreve is another wealthy businessman who has served on the City-County Council but never as an administrator of government. He plays on fear just like tfg. His party’s General Assembly has created the conditions that his undefined plan is supposedly going to change for the better. When he details something other than more armed police, I might believe it. In the meantime, his ads are offensive to my intelligence.

  12. I know most of us avoid going to faux spews dot com, but, seriously, it’s like the “Most Wanted” posters screaming on the front page. Everyday, after everyday. This crime, that mugshot, this gun was used, this blond haired victim survived…its crime porn. I swear, it’s a disgusting thing to see. It’s an alternate reality.

    We’re doomed. 🙁

  13. Shreve’s PLAN for many years has been to increase the number of guns sold. Has he missed that all shootings require a gun?

    I attended a meeting of the Indy Peace Fellowship a few weeks ago. They have been working with the Mayor, Prosecutor, police, churches, neighborhood organizations, non-profits, and others to intervene with those who are most likely to commit crimes and supporting them to complete their educations, find housing and transportation, get a job, and to provide them on-going mentoring. Their efforts have reduced Marion Co. homicides by 40% in a year’s time. I wish the TV stations were talking about that. The Mayor and Prosecutor supported them with city budget help and in getting a grant. The Indy Peace folks are a wonderful resource to those who don’t have the information, family, and other supportive resources to succeed. They are also a tremendous resource to those who want help to make their neighborhood safe. They can be found at I encourage folks to give them a donation and support their efforts.

  14. The data shows that we Americans are relatively upbeat about our own financial circumstances;?????

    Data is the plural form of datum. So, “the data show…” or “the datum shows…”

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