In Bogotá, fear does not match the numbers

by Guest blogger, Pablo Bachelet and Martín Ardanaz


La_CandelariaPhoto courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Author,  Tequendamia


For the majority of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, perceptions of crime are in line with the sad reality of a region lashed by high rates of robberies and homicides.

But in  Bogotá, there’s a paradox. On the one hand,  the city has seen significant reductions in its homicide rate in the past 10 years, as well as a more recent drop in the levels of victimization. Nevertheless, only one third of city residents said they felt secure in their neighborhoods in 2012, and 60 percent believed crime was on the rise.

The IDB has done a study on this issue, Mind the Gap: Bridging the Perception and Reality of Crime Rates with Information. The study sought to understand whether perceptions of insecurity could be corrected by the dissemination of objective information on crime and violence. The results showed it can be done, but with limitations.

Multiple studies have shown that fear of crime, as expected, is deeply rooted in the human psyche. We are more afraid of those things we cannot control and have grave consequences (like a homicide) than something we believe we can control but is more likely to harm us (car accident). It is also easier to remember a spectacular crime that had a powerful media impact than the “good news” of reductions in crime rates based on something more abstract, like statistics.

It is challenging, therefore, to change perceptions about the level of violence.

And it’s not just a matter of some politician who wants to dismiss fear as a mere perception. It is a fundamental issue for the development of a country and the well-being of its population. An insecure population tends to cooperate less with public institutions, including the police. It also tends to change its habits and customs, like not going out at night, and to take on costly expenses such as higher payments for private security.

To better understand the relationship between information and perception, IDB investigators carried out a survey of more than 2,000 homes in the Colombian capital between October and December of 2012.

Besides asking people about their perception of violence and crime, the investigators introduced an experiment into the questionnaire. Some of those surveyed were randomly selected to receive an envelope with a brochure containing information about the level of crime in  Bogotá, specifically reporting that the homicide rate had fallen by half in a decade and that robberies also had dropped. Other people surveyed (the control group) received only empty envelopes. In both cases, the survey continued with a series of concrete questions designed to determine the citizens’ perception of the level of security and the work of the police.

The dissemination of the brochure produced a 30 percent increase in the proportion of those surveyed  who said they felt secure in their city and reported improvements in their ratings of police work to prevent robberies and a lower level of mistrust toward that institution.

Should we rush to print brochures and pay for publicity campaigns with the good news? Careful, because things are not so simple.

The survey subjects who had strong biases – who believed there were far more more robberies than the actual number – were less likely to change their views. Investigators also contacted the people surveyed a few months later and found that while the sense that security had improved remained, the positive impact on the evaluation of the police work had dissipated.

The study suggested that for the benefits to be sustainable, publicity campaigns should complement existing government programs, raising the level of trust beyond what would be expected of the government programs alone. The delivery and dissemination of information should be more frequent and the information “should be perceived as objective, credible and transparent” in order to be effective.


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