Public Attitudes and Fear of Crime Victimization: Assessing the Role of Attitude Formation Theory

Article excerpt

A review of the current literature indicates that, despite the large quantity of research on fear of crime, it has remained an elusive concept that is difficult to measure and assess. Research findings on this issue are varied and often contradictory and, in general, appear to lack a synthesizing theory. This lack of synthesis appears to be especially prevalent with regard to an understanding of public perceptions of crime in general versus public perceptions of specific crimes. It is suggested that the application of attitude formation and response theory might provide a more comprehensive understanding of this general/specific fear of crime issue. Specifically, it is argued that attitude formation and response theory might better explain why public perceptions of general and specific crimes are skewed and what cognitive factors lead to this discrepancy. As such, the current study had two major objectives. The first goal of this study was to compare perceived and actual crime rates to determine if people are able to accurately assess the occurrence of both general and specific crime in their areas. The second of the research was to apply attitude formation theory to interpret fear of crime, specifically with regard to cognitive antecedents and responses. As expected, results indicate that subjects are inaccurate in their assessment of general crime rates but very accurate in terms of their assessment of specific crime rates. In addition, there was a significant relationship between subjects' attitudinal antecedents and their responses regarding fear of crime. Findings are discussed in terms of improvements to the measurement of fear of crime and associated responses to this phenomenon.

The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in research on peoples' perceptions of crime and their associated feelings of safety and security (see e.g., Farrall, Bannister, Ditton & Gilchrist, 1997). Surveys of the community are regularly conducted by police services, government agencies and academic researchers to assess levels of worry and perceived prevalence of crime. Such data may be used to identify specific areas of concern, target programs for improving safety and security, or to better understand peoples' assessments and concerns about crime. Some police services even incorporate community perceptions of crime risk and feelings of safety as performance indicators equal to that of the actual offence rate. In Western Australia, for example, one of the five core functions of the Police Service is maintenance of the peace. This core function includes preserving public order and promoting a sense of security in the community and a primary performance measure of this function is the proportion of the community who feel safe and secure (Western Australia Police Service, 1999).

Although there has been a great deal of so called 'fear of crime' inquiry, researchers often have difficulty defining what exactly fear of crime characterizes (Farrall et al., 1997). Broadly speaking, fear of crime has encompassed measures ranging from affective fear reactions in specific settings (Nasar & Jones, 1997; van der Wurff, van Staalduinen & Stringer, 1989) through to individual assessments of crime risk or prevalence (O'Connell & Whelan, 1996; Rountree & Land, 1996b). Depending on the theoretical focus of the research, methodology of the study, and/or interpretation of the investigator(s), numerous conflicting findings have been reported (Farrall et al., 1997). Ongoing disagreement by researchers over the structure and measurement of fear of crime, along with persisting discrepancies amid research data, appear to characterize this field of study.

The fact that perceptions of safety and fear of crime have been so rigorously investigated, and that research findings have become so important to law enforcement and community leaders, highlights the importance of continued empirical examination of this area. …