1.19.2008

fear and loathing of the big city

One of the reasons we stopped getting the Toronto Star home-delivered was its over-attention to random crime and accidents, and the inevitable fear-stoking that went with it.

Star editors must see one of their paper's principal functions as increasing public fear and anxiety over unlikely events - stabbings, shootings, high-speed traffic accidents. All bad things, no doubt, all things we'd surely be better off without. But the front-page placement, screaming headlines, and random quotes from nervous neighbours (of course they're nervous, there was a shooting in their neighbourhood an hour ago) seem designed to plant the belief that crime is rampant and to keep the public on edge.

Today the Star took a time-out from blotter news to run a reality check.
As long as there have been cities, there has been fear. Fear of violence, fear of death, fear of anonymous, big-city crime.

High-profile cases of random crime – like the recent shootings of John O'Keefe and Hou Chang Mao, both innocent bystanders killed within a week – feed the public's anxieties.

But is that fear justified? Random crime isn't going away, but neither is it increasing. Does a spate of random killings put us in greater danger than before? The Star asked an expert statistician to assess the risk.

University of Toronto professor Jeffrey S. Rosenthal is the author of Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, a book about probability and randomness in everyday life.

Q: For the average Torontonian, what are the odds of getting killed in a random crime, like, say, a stray bullet?

A: In Toronto, about 12 people per year are killed by a stranger. There are 2.6 million people in the city, so your chances of getting killed by a stranger are about one in 220,000.

So, not very likely at all.

Q: How do you calculate that?

A: We work in terms of statistics for recent times, like the number of homicides per year. In 2007, there were 84 homicides in Toronto. (It usually goes from 60 to about 80.)

There are also statistics on the victim-offender relationship. Only about 15 per cent (of victims) are killed by a stranger. So 15 per cent of 80 homicides ...

In comparison, your chances of getting killed by your spouse are one in 135,000, or about 50 per cent higher.

And if you are a woman and your spouse is a man, your chances are 8 times higher than if you are a man.

Incidences of relationship violence, including murder, are magnitudes higher than those of random violence. For example, 30% of Canadian women who are currently or previously married have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence at the hands of a marital partner. (Sources and more statistics in this previous post.)

Today the Star ran this story, titled "You're Safer Than You Think". But tomorrow, or shortly thereafter, it will continue splashing random murder and mayhem across its front pages.

Relationship violence is pandemic. Random violence is relatively rare.

The focus on random violence helps demonize cities, low-income neighbourhoods and, often, people of colour. Relationship violence happens in urban, suburban and rural settings, among the haves and the have-nots, and everyone in between.

A greater emphasis on relationship violence - its root causes, possible strategies for prevention, how to cope, where to find help - could potentially help many people and families.

The emphasis on random crime just sells papers.

1 comment:

Cornelia said...

Sure, and patriarchal background of crimes against women does not get mentioned at all either. I don't like scary stuff anyway but for me, the most scary environment is conservative sexist highly conventional villages and towns, ugh, no way, no more!!! I only like big cities, nothing else. It's freer and more interesting and though there are some idiots, too at least there are a lot of nice people as well and getting redress and support if one unfortunately comes across an offender is much more available. No need for secondary victimization and retraumatization, hey!!!