Urban Youth, Fear of Crime, and Resulting Defensive Actions

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Fear of crime in the United States has become a significant social problem in the past twenty years (Lewis & Salem, 1986), resulting in considerable social, psychological, and economic costs to individuals and society. A problem such as this has the potential to bring people together and strengthen social bonds if they act collectively to solve it (Durkheim, 1938). However in the United States, this has not occurred. The result instead has been insecurity, distrust, and a negative view of the community. In addition, concern about crime and suspicion have brought about a reduction in social interaction, community organization, and the effectiveness of informal community control of deviance (Conklin, 1975). Nationally, crime prevention appears to have shifted from governmental programs designed to alleviate the "root" conditions of crime (e.g., poverty, unemployment, discrimination) to individual actions that might remove or reduce such risk. This shift has been toward actions that might "harden the target" and away from large-scale collective actions (National Crime Prevention Institute, 1978). Although collective actions are still being taken, the increase in personal defensive actions, encouraged by law-enforcement officials in some cases, at least implicitly suggests that the individual cannot depend on the social system for protection. This, we would hypothesize, contributes to the increase in fear of victimization.

Among the documented personal defensive actions are "avoidance" or behavioral restrictions. Garofaldo (1977) found in his study that half of his sample had restricted their behavior by avoiding going out in the evening or moving to a different neighborhood. Other actions include installing alarms, window bars, special locks, outdoor lighting, and timers for indoor electrical devices such as radios, lights, and television sets. Purchasing handguns, theft and vandalism insurance, engraving valuables, and keeping trained watchdogs have also been documented (Lavrakas, Baumer, & Skogan, 1978; Whitaker, 1986; President's Commission of Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, 1967).

This paper examines the extent and correlates of defensive actions taken by school youth as a result of their concern with crime. This population (ages 12 through 19) is known to be victimized, both by violent and theft-related crime, at twice the rate of the older population (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1986). Not only do youth of today have a much larger knowledge base in general to absorb than did youth of the past, they must also deal with crime concerns to a much larger degree than did those who were in school before 1970. In 1987, the National Crime Survey estimated that nearly three million students, faculty, staff, and visitors were victimized while in school or on school property. Despite a declining school-age population, violent school crime has increased (Wetzel, 1989). Concerns with crime among this age group has been found to be associated with an increase in mistrust and suspicion, a decline in self-esteem, self-confidence, participation in sports and other youth programs, and an increase in hostilities, carrying weapons, nightmares, fear of being alone, being outside, truancy, and dropping out of school (Conklin, 1986; Burgess & Holmstrom, 1976). Fearful students have been found to be more likely to have few friend, lower grades, and lower self-esteem than their counterparts (Wayne & Rubel, 1980).

The only study the authors have been able to locate which dealt with the methods youth use to cope with crime concerns was done in the early 1970s (Savitz et al., 1977). That study was conducted in Philadelphia and focused on boys between the ages of 13 and 14. "Avoidance" was the major method used to cope with crime and/or the fear of crime. Among the avoidances mentioned were restricting movement to within two blocks of their residence at night, venturing out at night only with an escort or companion, not talking to "strangers," and not venturing into "gang turfs. …


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