Mayor Brandon Scott promised voters that he’d reduce violent crime in Baltimore, and after three years in office, some indicators suggest his approach is working. Violent crime is down, and the city is currently on track to end the year with fewer than 300 murders for the first time in nine years. Polling also suggests that parts of Scott’s approach to crime reduction that he campaigned on in 2020 — policies that address root causes, such as poverty and a lack of community resources while pursuing more effective policing and gun control — are broadly popular.
Yet, Baltimoreans say they don’t feel any safer. Nearly all residents continue to view crime and public safety as a major issue facing the city, and almost half of all Baltimore City voters, or 47%, think that crime has gotten worse in their neighborhoods during the past year, according to a Goucher College/Baltimore Banner poll of city voters conducted in late September. Only 11% say there is less crime in their neighborhoods than a year ago.
So, what gives? Why hasn’t Scott’s approach and the reduction of violent crime improved public attitudes toward crime reduction and public safety?
It’s important first to note that the disconnect between actual crime rates and public perceptions about crime is not a unique feature of the Baltimore electorate. National crime rates have trended down for years, but Americans consistently say there is more crime than in previous years. A recent poll from Gallup finds that “63 percent of Americans describe the crime problem in the U.S. as either extremely or very serious, up from 54 percent when last measured in 2021 and the highest in Gallup’s trend.” Moreover, most Americans say there is more crime in their local areas than in previous years.
But further complicating matters in Baltimore is that while rates of homicides and nonfatal shootings have declined overall, some quality of life and property crimes, perhaps most notably auto thefts, have risen. There’s also the issue of crime as it relates to young Baltimoreans: Violent crime arrests of Maryland juveniles between 2020 and 2023 are down overall, but arrests for certain types of violent crimes in Baltimore — murder or attempted murder, crimes committed with handguns and carjackings — have skyrocketed.
Among the most devastating findings are that young Baltimoreans ages 13 to 18 are on track to make up a much larger share of Baltimore gun violence victims in 2023. The Goucher/Banner polling reflects this painful reality: 63% thought young Baltimoreans were more likely to be a victim of crime than they were last year. It creates a mixed bag for Baltimore residents when pollsters ask them to evaluate their city’s overall crime and public safety.
Researchers have long been interested in understanding the factors underlying perceptions versus reality regarding crime.
For starters, some argue that violent crime is the most fear-inducing; therefore, individuals who live in neighborhoods with high levels of violence are the most likely to say crime is a problem. Others argue that property crime, given its relatively greater frequency of occurrence, has a more robust overall effect and even drives the decision to relocate.
Regardless of whether it’s property or violent crime, the fear of individual victimization lies at the core of public perception: The more a resident believes they will be a victim of crime, the more likely they will perceive that there’s more crime in their neighborhood. Women, older residents, those with children, long-time residents and previous victims of crime are the most likely to express greater fears. At the same time, a fear of crime is far more prevalent than actual rates of victimization.
Not surprisingly, the prevalence of race-based stereotypes and neighborhood-based factors further condition perceptions of crime. Differences in neighborhood demographics, resources and organization generate variations in real crime rates and affect how specific groups in the neighborhood perceive crime. For example, previous research has shown that white Americans who live in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods tend to feel less satisfied with public safety overall. The percentage of young Black men in a neighborhood is associated with perceptions of the neighborhood crime level, particularly among white people. Baltimore’s history certainly exemplifies the effects of racism on neighborhood segregation and related inequities in policing and arrest rates.
To be sure, neighborhood-level factors also impact Black residents, including the disproportionate prevalence of crime in their local communities driven by a lack of resources and public investment. But research suggests that chronic exposure may result in their overall desensitization to crime when compared to their white counterparts. Still, in Baltimore, Black residents were more likely than white residents to say that crime has gotten worse in their neighborhoods during the past year.
Baltimore’s media diet almost certainly impacts how residents perceive crime and public safety. Stories about violent crime are a fixture in local television and print news and the consumption of local television news has been shown to increase perceptions of risk and fear of crime among all demographic groups. To that point, the Goucher/Banner poll found that local television was residents’ most frequent news source.
The impact of relevant crime statistics, such as the reduction in the murder rate, also heavily depends on how the media presents that information. Indeed, the episodic nature of many news stories regarding crime — such as the headline-grabbing murders of elderly church volunteer Evelyn Player, tech executive Pava LaPere or the mass shooting at a Brooklyn Homes block party — overshadow the broader downward trend in the murder rate, even when journalists include it in their reporting.
Exposure to social media is likely to further exaggerate the impact of local crime-related news. According to the Pew Research Center, a large majority of U.S. adults say they often or sometimes get news from a smartphone, and a third say they regularly get news from Facebook. Through neighborhood association Facebook pages and the Citizen app, Baltimore residents are no more than a scroll away from being inundated with hyperlocal, sometimes real-time information about crime in their neighborhoods.
There’s also the issue of who residents hold responsible for the crime they perceive. The Goucher College/Baltimore Banner poll asked voters, “Who or what do you ultimately hold the most responsible for the crime rate in Baltimore City?” A content analysis of their open-ended responses reveals that nearly 20% said “Mayor Scott” specifically, and almost a quarter viewed “Baltimore City government” as the problem more generally. Other respondents hold “the individuals committing the crimes,” “parents,” and systemic issues such as poverty, racism and the lack of opportunity and resources as responsible.
Despite the measurable reduction in violent crime, Baltimore Democrats view Scott’s most formidable opponent, former Mayor Sheila Dixon, as better able to reduce crime and improve public safety — by a whopping 20-point margin.
So, the findings suggest that Mayor Scott must confront both the reality of crime and the immense difficulties of changing perceptions of crime to win a second term. That will mean demonstrating a clear causal link between his public policy initiatives and decreased violent crime, while ensuring a weary city that his approach will eventually improve overall public safety. And if the recent polling tells us anything, it’s that the public is both impatient and willing to consider other options.
Mileah Kromer is director of the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics and associate professor of political science at Goucher College. Myles Maxwell and Rianne Nickerson are research assistants at the Hughes Center.