Over the last several decades, the fear of crime has emerged as an important social problem. The responsibility to decrease the fear of crime has been placed on both citizens and police departments. Some believe that citizens should reclaim their streets with community crime prevention (informal social control), while others believe the responsibility of reducing fear of crime is primarily regulated by government institutions and politics (formal social control). There has been little research that examines the influence of both informal and formal levels of social control on fear simultaneously.
Assessing which type of social control perceptions (informal, formal, or both) has a greater influence on fear of crime has important practical implications. If perceptions of informal neighbor relationships, such as sharing common values and a willingness to address crime, have a stronger influence on individual fear of crime, then police and local government institutions should work to encourage and support resident cohesiveness and efficacy. On the other hand, a more successful approach for affecting fear of crime may require changing perceptions of police effectiveness at controlling crime, addressing issues of police legitimacy, or improving general perceptions of government responsiveness to neighborhoods and citizens.
This study addresses whether residents’ perceptions of informal neighborhood social control or police and government activities in their neighborhood provides a stronger explanation of their emotional fear of crime.
Primary Research Question
The primary research question in this study is whether individual perceptions of informal, formal, or both levels of neighborhood social control influence reported levels of emotional fear of crime.
Data for this study are based on 505 resident responses from a mailed survey of random households in 10 neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon. The survey was administered from November 2003 through January 2004.
The research measured the predictive power of two measures of informal social control (social cohesion, willingness to intervene) and four different measures of formal social control (government responsiveness, police legitimacy and procedural justice, police effectiveness, police-citizen coproduction) on emotional fear of crime.
The interpretation of these results and the conclusions drawn are not without limitations. The response rate of 50 percent requires a cautious appraisal. The scores for different regression models indicate additional factors relate to fear of crime that need future consideration. The cross-sectional nature of the data does not allow for an accurate interpretation of cause and effect relationships.
The results generated by this study support the influence of both informal and formal social control perceptions on emotional fear of crime while controlling for individual demographics and neighborhood disorder.
- Residents who sense cohesion, trust, and value sharing among their neighbors report less fear of crime.
- Social cohesion is a stronger inhibitor of fear of crime than a perceived willingness of neighbors to engage in crime and delinquency prevention tasks.
- Only two of the four variables used to test the impact of public (formal) social control perceptions on emotional fear of crime proved significant in multivariate regressions:
- A fear of police encounters was significantly related to increased fear of crime across all models, although respondents living in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods reported significantly elevated fears of police encounters than respondents from more advantaged neighborhoods. It appears that perceptions of police legitimacy and procedural justice can be of tremendous import to fear of crime, but whether a fear of police encounters increases fear of crime or vice versa cannot be substantiated with this study.
- Perceptions of police effectiveness proved to be a significant inhibitor of fear of crime, primarily among respondents from medium and low disadvantaged neighborhoods.
- Government responsiveness and police-citizen coproduction were not significant predictors of fear of crime.
The responsibility for fear reduction should not be polarized between citizens and police, as both informal and formal social control relate to fear of crime. Social cohesion was an important factor in reducing fear of crime, therefore striving to build community cohesion in even the most disadvantaged neighborhoods should not be viewed as fantasy.
Neighborhood organizations, police, and other government agencies should strive to find interactive and inclusive ways to create a sense of community cohesion among residents.
For police to be effective in co-producing social order, they should consider addressing potential impediments regarding citizen perceptions of police legitimacy/procedural justice, particularly in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.