Monday, March 25, 2013

Crime in Europe versus the US

Burglar Relief
Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower
Photo by wetman
When decided to be an expat, you naturally have to decide where to move. There are many things involved in that decision (not the least of which is "where can I move"), but crime has to be one of the more important considerations. After all, with the Honduras having the highest murder rate in the world, it's probably not your first choice of destination, right?

Still, there is a difference between the reality of crime and the perception of crime. So when I pointed out Bill O'Reilly's misconception about crime in Amsterdam, I was pointing out his guess as to what life in Amsterdam was like, rather than any informed research on his part. Later, after being widely mocked, he tried to defend his comments, including offering the rather amusing excuse that "the way they do statistics in the Netherlands is different." It couldn't help but laugh at that, but there is an accidental kernel of truth there.

It's long been known that when comparing health care systems around the world, you need to be careful because statistics are often collected on different data sets, yet compared as if they're identical. We have similar problems when comparing crime rates. For example, we're hearing a lot lately about the rape epidemic in India, but according to, the United States has 17 times more rape per capita than India. What gives? On one hand, we could say that hysterical reporting has blown the issue out of proportion. On the other hand, Indian rape victims may be less likely to report the crime, or the police may be less likely to record the crime. Then there's the debate about the scale of false rape claims in the US.

In other words, it's very hard to get an objective analysis about crime. That's why I tend to be very skeptical about many reports of crime rates. However, while there is no crime that can be guaranteed to be absolutely comparable across countries, I use the homicide rate as the baseline for two reasons. First, I'm more concerned about murder than robbery. I have a better chance of recovering from one of those. Second, a dead body is a dead body. I suspect, though I cannot prove, that for most major industrialized nations, reported murder rates are probably fairly accurate. So if I were to find out that the reported murder rate of a country is ten times the reported murder rate of where I'm currently living, the actual murder rate might be different, but I do know that crime in general is probably worse. (That being said, going from .1 murder per 100,000 to 1 murder per 100,000 isn't that big of a deal ... unless you're a victim).

So if you want to consider murder rates, you can download the United Nations report on Intentional homicide, count and rate per 100,000 population (XLS spreadsheet). What I found fascinating is that for the United States, for 2010, there were 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. That's the lowest murder rate since 1995, when there were 8.1 murders per 100,000 people. Murder rates have almost been cut in half.

And how does that 4.8 figure compare to Europe? It's abysmal. If you ignore the former Iron Curtain countries (and Greenland, which was listed as part of Europe), the US far, far outstrips most of these countries in terms of murder rate. Italy? 0.9. Portugal? 1.2. France? 1.1. This is despite the fact that the United States has long had more people in prison per capita than any other nation. (In fact, the Netherlands is closing prisons due to lack of criminals). If you were to start digging into this problem, you'd be shocked at how different approaches to crime can lead to startlingly different outcomes, but that's a subject for another day.