“An SEP,” he said, “is something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.” – Douglas Adams
Talking with a friend of mine who lives in Washington DC, I was struck by how fervently some folks cling to their preconceptions about how safe their personal world really is. My friend told me, “Washington is really a safe city. The police are everywhere, you see them all the time. Whenever something happens, they swarm the area and lock everything down. It’s really a very safe place to live.”
Here’s a confession: I’m a little bit of a coward in personal interactions these days. I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings, or make him feel unsafe where he lived. So I didn’t say anything much in response to his statement. But do you know the truth about crime rates in the District of Columbia? Like everywhere else in the country, DC has experienced a falling rate of crime over the past decade or so. That’s good, and it’s a real success story. But the rate of violent crime in our nation’s capitol city is still more than three times the national average. Three times!
Hard numbers? Sure. In Washington DC, the violent crime rate in 2010 was 1,330.2 per 100,000 in population. That compares to a national average in the same year of 403.6 per 100,000. The murder rate in DC that year was 21.9, compared to a national average of 4.8. While the numbers inside the Disctrict have continued to fall sharply, down from a 1980s peak, the rate of violent crime in that city continues to fly far above the national average. If each person’s lifetime risk was exactly the same (it’s not, for a number of reasons, but if it were), the chance of a resident of DC becoming the victim of some type of violent crime over a lifetime would approach 100% certainty. That’s how high the crime rates are inside the Disctrict – an area where my friend feels safe because he sees a lot of police activity.
Sometimes, on hearing numbers like this, we’re tempted to think it’s not so bad. It couldn’t possibly be … could it? After all, most crimes are little things like someone smashing a window to steal a briefcase off the front seat of a car, right? Nope. These numbes reflect the violent crime rates, which include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. (Oh, and don’t discount “aggravated assault” as a minor thing. It basically means someone tried hard to kill another person, and almost succeeded.) The rates of non-violent crimes and property crimes are much higher. Despite the wonderful successes of recent years, crime continues to be a serious problem.
And yet, my friend still believes that he lives in a safe place.
Do you know the crime rates for the city where you live?