Fear of Gang Crime: A Look at Three Theoretical Models

Article excerpt

Gang crime and resulting public fear became a major policy focus during the 1990s, yet feu studies specifically focus on fear of gang crime. Guided by social disorganization theory, we test three theoretical models about the individual thought processes leading to fear of gang crime. Using structural equation models, we find that each of these three theories-diversity, disorder, and community concern-is an important predictor of gang-related fear. In addition, we find that the indirect relationships between demographic characteristics, theoretical variables, and fear depend upon which model is tested.

Fear of Gangs and Crime Policy

Crime has been a major focus of political campaigns for years (Johnson 1997; Warr 1995, 2000), but during the 1990s, policymakers routinely cited gang violence and the fear it invoked in the public as a primary justification for harsher laws and punishment policies (e.g., Clinton 1997; Senate 1994). Throughout the 1990s, both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate held hearings about gang violence in an effort to "do something" about gangs, which, they believed, had the nation "caught in the grip of fear" (Senate 1994:2; see also House 1997a, 1997b). In his opening statement to the 1994 Senate hearing The Gang Problem in America, then-Senator Kohl summed up the Senate's concerns:

Too many of our young people are killing and being killed and breeding fear among all the honest people who try to walk our streets. Throughout the United States, gangs have much to do with all of this . . . today, we recognize that violent gang crime is a national problem. . . . (Senate 1994:1-2).

As a result of legislator concerns, the 1994 Federal Crime Bill made it a federal offense to be involved in gang-related crime and created minimum penalties for related offenses (Senate 1994:4, 19; Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Public Law 103-322, §150001).

A few years later, President Clinton declared a war on gangs in his 1997 State of the Union address and announced that fighting gangs would be a top priority of his second administration (Clinton 1997; Peterson 1997). Later that year, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime held a hearing, Gang-Related Witness Intimidation and Retaliation, which reiterated the concern that gangs were still out of control. As a Los Angeles deputy district attorney told the subcommittee, "Fear and intimidation are the foundation of gang dominance in our communities . . ." (House 1997b:5). Clearly, during the 1990s, gangs rose to the center of the policy debate about crime, due, at least in part, to policymakers' perceptions that the public was terrified of gangs.

Few studies specifically examine fear of gang crime (see Lane 2002; Lane & Meeker 2000, 2003). Research regarding fear of nongang crimes indicates that the public's fear is complex and not likely to be lessened simply by passing more laws, such as Clinton's Anti-Gang and Youth Violence Initiative, and increasing punishments (see Peterson 1997; House 1997b). This lack of effect is due in part to the public's limited knowledge about the workings of the criminal justice system (Roberts & Stalans 1997). Findings also indicate that actual crime levels do not neatly translate into fear levels. Most fear of crime research indicates that perceptions of community factors such as diversity, disorder, decline, and crime are probably more important in predicting fear than is the objective "reality" of crime and victimization (e.g., Garofalo & Laub 1978; Lewis & Maxfield 1980; Taylor 2001; Warr 1994, 2000).

Fear of crime is functional if it helps people protect themselves from real threats (Warr 2000). But research has shown that people who are most at risk for victimization (e.g., young, minority males) are less fearful than those at less risk, such as women and the elderly (see Warr 1994 for a review). Social disorganization is a key theory that has been used to explain how real and perceived community characteristics can increase fear of crime, especially when victimization risk is low (Taylor & Covington 1993). …

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