Actual crimes vs. perceptions of crime in Birmingham, AL

Like many American cities, crime is down in Birmingham, Alabama yet this is not the perception:

With ten people killed in Birmingham since the start of Labor Day weekend, a city that prides itself on revitalization and a declining murder rate has had some old ghosts creep out of the closet.

None of the killings occurred in areas of the city’s heralded new entertainment districts. But the stabbing of an elderly woman in an apparent Avondale break-in, and the deaths of two bikers in a shootout at a club in an area north of Avondale were close enough to raise questions, again, about whether the city is safe.

“Perception is reality,” said John Sloan, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Birmingham boasts that crime is down, and that murders have fallen sharply from previous highs. Still, said Sloan, “People don’t believe it.”

“The problem is how do you change that image?” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, one of two former UAB sociology professors who co-authored “Unhealthy Cities: Poverty, Race and Place in America. “That’s an uphill battle.”…

Said Fitzpatrick: “Between 70 and 80 percent of crime is between people who know each other. It’s not a lot of random crime. It’s not the kind of crime people who want to go downtown to the baseball game need to be worried about.”

A familiar story: crime has dropped substantially yet some high-profile cases largely involving limited social networks in certain neighborhoods fuel lingering perceptions from suburbanites and others about the dangers of the big city.

The article suggests cities need to continually fight these perceptions and fear is tough to overcome. I can think of one way to help combat this: work with the local media to change their reporting. While these organizations need ratings and sales, historically the media has been part of growth machines that are important parts of urban growth. If Birmingham grows, attracting people and businesses, the media is likely to benefit as well from selling more advertisements and copies. So why not work with them to change their leads to also emphasize positive stories? Everyone can win here. (I realize this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. Yet, I haven’t heard any recent cases of the media working with local governments on this issue. While the media often sees itself as a watchdog or the protector of the public, it historically has had a role in supporting local initiatives.)

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