Many years ago, I woke up one night in my bedroom on the second floor of a horrible highrise in downtown Toronto to the sound of gunshots very close by. The smell of gunpowder drifted up to my window. I thought of this when I read a witness describing the terrible shootings in Aurora, Colo., at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises: “I could smell gunpowder,” she said. You go through life not knowing what it smells like, but when it hits your nose, you immediately recognize it.
As it turned out, it was police officers who had fired the shots outside my window – at a guy who had tried to run them over in his car, after fighting with a hooker in the parking lot beside my building. Truly, it was a charming neighbourhood.
In those days, it seemed, violent crime was all around. The so-called balcony rapist stalked my streets. Several murder cases involving young women dominated the headlines. When I came home late from my job at a movie theatre, my grandmother used to meet me at the bus stop with a pair of scissors concealed in her brassiere. (Women of her generation would never stoop to the word “bra.”)
If you live in any large city, at any point in history, you’re going to feel as if you’re in the middle of a crime wave – even if, empirically, you’re not. Last year, Toronto’s homicide rate dropped to its lowest level in 12 years, and the Canadian murder rate to its lowest in 44 years. But it doesn’t feel that way when you turn on the television and see that two young people have been killed at a barbecue and a toddler hit by a bullet. Or you can’t enter the mall where you’ve shopped a hundred times because it’s the scene of a shooting rampage. At that point, being safe and feeling safe become two different things.
In Toronto, and in many cities of the West where violent crime rates are dropping, you are relatively safe – or at least safer than you would have been 20 years ago. (And I’m not saying this because I’m the mayor.) The general, unassailable downward trend seems unimaginable when you set it against the horror of a few unspeakable, high-profile tragedies. Then, people start to wonder: What’s happened to us? What’s happened to my neighbours, my city?
And you wouldn’t be the first to feel that way. As historian Joanna Bourke wrote in her excellent book Fear: A Cultural History, irrational fear of crime has always been with us. In the mid-19th century, despite a dropping crime rate, England was swept by a “garrotting panic.” People were terrified, baselessly, over the thought they might be throttled to death on the street. Ms. Bourke put part of the blame for this sensationalism on the yellow press – consider that the next time you turn on the TV or glance at a headline.
What spurred people’s fear of crime, according to Ms. Bourke, was not an actual, statistically valid worry about being set upon; it was a more general apprehension about strangers, people who were alien in appearance or habit. Over the years, fear about crime “masked other fears about inner-city degeneration and anxiety about change more generally.”
Now I live in England, where there is again a powerful disconnect between fear and reality. In one British crime survey, 37 per cent of people cited fear of violent crime having an impact on their lives, although just 4 per cent were likely to become victims. When the government launched an interactive crime map last year (you could see which neighbour’s house had been burgled! Cool!), the site got 18 million hits in an hour and promptly crashed.
The homicide rate in England and Wales has dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, according to figures released this week amid the giant security push leading up to the Olympics. All crimes, taken together, have fallen by 4 per cent.
I try to remind myself of this as I stare at a letter London’s Metropolitan Police once sent me, which I’ve kept because it gives me a good, black laugh. “Dear Victim of Crime … ,” it begins. I can’t even remember now which crime it refers to: Was it the time my husband was mugged around the corner? The time my wallet was stolen when I was pushing my baby in a stroller? The first time our house was broken into? The second? The third?
The point is those are incidents, not trends. They’re the price I pay for living in a city this size. When I take a deep breath and look at it rationally, I realize the city I live in now is not becoming more dangerous, and neither is the one where I was born.