Public Perceptions of Crime Trends in New South Wales and Western Australia


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Release date: 23 April 2004
Most people think crime is rising even when the evidence plainly reveals the opposite to be true, according to a survey carried out late last year and early this year in New South Wales (NSW) and Western Australia (WA).

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the Western Australia Office of Crime Prevention and the West Australian Crime Research Centre designed and funded the survey.

Interviews were carried out with a sample of 857 residents in New South Wales (NSW) and 252 residents of Western Australia (WA) aged 18 years and over. The sample was designed to ensure that the people interviewed in each State reflected its age and gender profile.

Survey respondents were quizzed about trends in six categories of crime over the preceding two years. The categories were home break-in, motor vehicle theft, robbery with a firearm, sexual assault, murder and shoplifting.

In NSW, at the time of the survey, home break-ins and motor vehicle theft were falling, robbery with a firearm, sexual assault and murder were stable and shoplifting was rising.

NSW respondents were asked to state, in relation to each of these offences, whether it had become 'more common, less common or stayed about the same' over the preceding two years. The answers they gave were compared with what had actually been happening to crime across NSW over the preceding two years. A similar process was followed in WA.

Only a small proportion of respondents in NSW correctly identified the trend in relation to each of the six offences. The offence with the highest percentage correct in NSW was shoplifting, which only 37 per cent of respondents correctly identified as rising. The offence with the lowest percentage correct was home break-in, which only eight per cent of respondents correctly identified as falling.

In every category of offence except one (shoplifting), citizens of WA outperformed their NSW counterparts in judging the direction of crime in their State.

For example, whereas forty-six per cent of WA residents correctly identified murder as stable, only 23 per cent of respondents in NSW correctly identified the same trend. Moreover, whereas 18 per cent of WA residents correctly identified the fall in car theft in WA, only 11 per cent in NSW correctly identified this trend.

Most of the error in judging crime trends in both States comes from a general tendency to think crime is rising when it is actually stable or falling. The strength of this tendency varies according to the age, gender, residential location and occupational status of the respondent.

For example, people aged 50 and over are much more likely to say home break-ins and murder have become more common than younger age groups.

People living outside Sydney, on the other hand, are more likely to think that home break-ins and car theft have become more common but are less likely to think that robbery with a firearm has become more common.

Commenting on the findings, the Director of the Bureau, Dr Don Weatherburn, said that they were worrying but not surprising.

'Although this sort of research has never been conducted in Australia before, similar research in the United States and Britain has shown that their citizens have are also prone to assuming that crime is rising, even after many years of falling crime.'

'One worrying thing about these findings is the possibility that mistaken public perceptions about trends in crime can lead to distortions in Government spending priorities.'

'Money that should be spent on things like hospitals, schools and public transport, could end up being spent on law and order because the public mistakenly believes crime is rising.'

"The other worrying thing is that, unwarranted concern about crime, particularly among the women and the elderly, can force people to curtail their social activity and reduce their quality of life'

Further Enquiries:
Dr Don Weatherburn (02) 9231 9190 (wk) / 0419 494 408 (mob)