How fearful of crime is your Seattle neighborhood? An analysis of crime data and a new survey shows some residents' fears are at odds with reality.
In some Seattle neighborhoods, folks think that crime is a lot worse than it is.
That’s one of my takeaways from a recently released survey on public safety conducted by Seattle University’s Department of Criminal Justice.
Nearly 6,500 city residents were asked to rate, on a scale of zero to 100, how much they worry about crime in their neighborhood. A zero would mean that they never worry about crime, and 100 would indicate that they worry about it all the time. Survey respondents were asked to consider both violent crime and property crime in their response.
Overall, Seattleites rate their fear of crime at 45.4 out of 100. That number averages out a lower fear rating in daylight hours and a higher fear at night.
The report also includes data for 59 city neighborhoods, and it shows that the level of fear varies widely among them — from lowest to highest, there’s a spread of 22 points.
That’s to be expected. After all, you’re much more likely to be a victim of crime in, say, downtown’s Belltown neighborhood than you are in quiet, affluent Magnolia — crime statistics bear that out.
But here’s where it gets interesting: According to Seattle University’s survey, it’s Magnolia — not Belltown — where the fear of crime is higher, and by more than 4 points.
I calculated the crime rates for Seattle neighborhoods, using Seattle Police Department data for 2016 and 2017 and the most recent population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. Then I compared the crime rates with the numbers from Seattle University’s fear-of-crime scale.
It turns out there are numerous examples of neighborhoods like Magnolia where, when compared with the city average, the fear is high even though the crime rate is low.
Take South Beacon Hill. It has the lowest crime rate in the city, at just 23 per 1,000 residents — that’s less than half the Seattle average. But the fear of crime reported by residents is 49.8, the 12th highest neighborhood.
Even more surprising: Brighton/Dunlap in South Seattle and Pigeon Point in West Seattle are seemingly safe places to live, and rank among the 15 neighborhoods with the lowest rates of reported crime. But in terms of fear, they rank second and third, respectively — both at least 10 points higher than the city average.
Other neighborhoods where the level of fear is above average but the crime rate is below average include: Bitter Lake, Highland Park, High Point, New Holly, Rainier View, Mid-Beacon Hill, Ballard North and Fauntleroy.
What’s going on in these neighborhoods?
I asked Jacqueline Helfgott, professor and chair of the criminal-justice department at Seattle University, and co-author of the report, why perceptions of crime could be out of sync with reality.
“There is a phenomenon known as the ‘mean world syndrome‘,” she said in an email, “that the world is a much more dangerous place than it actually is.”
Helfgott says that a number of factors contribute to this sense of fear, including reading or watching a lot of news, or hyperlocal websites like Nextdoor.com, where neighbors frequently post about crime.
“A person who is a high media consumer will believe the world is a much more dangerous place than his or her neighbor who is a low media consumer,” she said.
Past personal experience with victimization can also contribute to the sense of fear that an individual feels. So can certain demographic characteristics, like age or gender, that might put a person at higher risk for certain types of crime.
Visible signs of disorder within a neighborhood — things like broken windows, graffiti, disorderly behavior, and so on — can make a place feel more dangerous, too.
It should be noted that in many Seattle neighborhoods, the level of fear is commensurate with the rate of crime. For example, the neighborhood where people worry most about crime is also the one with the highest rate: Sodo.
Each year, there is about one crime reported for every two residents there. The rate is so high because not many people live in this mostly commercial and industrial district, but it welcomes a lot of visitors (and parked cars). Both major sports arenas, the Starbucks headquarters and a Home Depot call the neighborhood home.
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So it’s understandable that the fear of crime in Sodo registers 58.9, more than 13 points higher than the city average.
Some other neighborhoods where both the fear of crime and the crime rate are well above average include downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square, the Chinatown International District, Georgetown, South Delridge, South Park and Northgate.
Then there are neighborhoods where the residents have a low fear of crime, and that makes sense, because they don’t have that much of it: Madison Park, Leschi/Madrona, Phinney Ridge and Morgan Junction in West Seattle are examples.
Interestingly, there are a few areas where folks aren’t overly stressed out about crime despite some of the highest rates in the city.
Most notable is South Lake Union. The crime rate is around twice the city average, but it reports the second-lowest level of fear among the neighborhoods: 38.6. In Belltown and Capitol Hill, too, crime rates are relatively high, but residents are less worried than the average Seattleite.
The neighborhood with the lowest level of fear in Seattle is Fremont, at 36.9. The crime rate here — 60 per 1,000 residents — is on par with the city average.
The fear of crime, even if it is at odds with the rate of crime, is not something to be taken lightly, Helfgott says. It can make a person afraid to do the most ordinary task, like walk to the neighborhood grocery store.
She adds that police can help by speaking with community members, and specifically addressing the discrepancy between the fear of crime and actual crime in the neighborhood.
“Fear of crime is as important as actual crime if it decreases a person’s feeling of safety and impacts their quality of life,” Helfgott said. “Police resources need to address both.”