Fear eats the soul. In the short term it can produce extraordinary strength, impelling us to fight or flight. But it can also paralyse us. Fear of crime is particularly infectious. It can start locally and grow to terrorise a community – especially when the character of the crime fits ancient patterns, tapping into deep-rooted anxieties such as fear of strangers, and the horror of violence to innocents.
Two recent tragedies – the teenager shot in an east London street in the afternoon by a stranger for her mobile telephone, and Kevin Jackson, stabbed to death by two would-be car thieves in a Yorkshire village in the middle of the night – reflect very different threats, carried out in very different circumstances. It's tempting to lump them together under headlines like "Violent Britain", but that isn't enlightening and does not address the real crime picture in Britain.
The steps that might be taken by police and other agencies to diminish the risk of these offences occurring again are different. Some of them are happening already: there are more CCTV cameras in public places. Other measures are promised by David Blunkett's police reforms, intended to free more officers from paperwork and to recruit "community support officers" and special constables to increase police visibility and public reassurance. But here's the rub: we think about crime in such primitive ways that this sort of reassurance is often mistaken for genuine protection. Having a bobby on the beat may make us feel better, but it doesn't protect us from most crimes.
When it comes to crime and violence, nearly all of us like to think of ourselves as experts. Whether it has happened to us, near to us, or we have read or heard about it, our responses take on a ritual aspect. We close ranks, demand action and stop thinking of the bigger picture.
This has happened in the national response to isolated cases. The Portsmouth estate that marched against a paedophile in their midst led to a chain reaction that involved even a paediatrician being attacked by shouting crowds of mothers and children. After the killing of James Bulger, several mothers reported their children to the police and were driven out of their homes. In the 18th century, such brutal collective actions were known as "rough music". It's still the same old tune today.
The cases of James Bulger and Sarah Payne altered the British idea of childhood. For many children they ended the tradition of walking to school – and for no good reason. The awful truth is that more than a hundred children die in Britain every year at the hand of someone in their own home.
Moral panics take real incidents and pull them wildly out of shape, with potential long-term damage to the careful balance of community protection against individual rights. The furore surrounding the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, convicted of killing a teenage burglar, created the dangerous impression that rural violence was so much worse than the inner-city variety that it should have been acceptable for him to shoot intruders in the back.
Last week's case of the Lincolnshire farmer unable to get police to clear his property of ravers in the middle of the night has not prompted a debate about the reality of limited police resources, or the Hobson's choice between enforcing the law and keeping order. Even when police have ample numbers, their interventions often produce more trouble than they were intended to solve.
But the sight of police refusing to act combines with other stories of violence to create a perception of multiple dangers in which the police have failed to protect lives and property. In reality, crime patterns vary and are intensely local: communities can live safely next door to crime hot spots. That is why conclusions drawn from broad-brush crime statistics so distort what passes for debate.
Surrey has some of the lowest crime levels, yet fear of crime remains high. Its chief constable, Denis O'Connor, has tried to account for that phenomenon using focus groups. They revealed that fear of violence is triggered by small signs of disorder – groups of angry youths, abandoned cars and graffiti. This supports the "broken window" theory, which suggests that unrepaired damage and vandalism signals an indifference to minor crimes and incivilities that attracts more serious offending, such as drug markets.
Police have long rated these undramatic incidents as not "real crime". Providing somewhere safe and interesting for young people to go at weekends and evenings has none of the mythic clarity of "more bobbies on the beat" or longer prison sentences.
In recent years, largely unsung Crime Reduction partnerships have analysed the patterns of crime: when and where offences are committed, and by whom. While police target their efforts on persistent offenders, the local authorities have taken such steps as increasing street lighting and removing graffiti and burnt-out cars, all of which helped to cut crime.
Street robberies are a serious problem, as is the spread of weapon ownership. In the wake of the Macpherson report, some officers are reluctant to search black youths for fear of being accused of racism. But the answer is surely not to bring back the "sus" laws that give carte blanche to police aggression. With tensions between police and ethnic-minority youth blamed for the riots in the North, officers need a different kind of relationship with young people than mere suspicion.
My own research has shown that young people are most likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence and theft. They badly want police attention – but of a more supportive kind. We do have a serious violence problem, but not the one you may have read so much about last week. Child abuse, domestic violence and the rate of child murders are an ongoing national tragedy that largely passes unnoticed. An incident of domestic violence happens every 20 seconds. Alcohol is often involved, and the tragedies happen indoors.
As with paedophiles, pit bulls, illegal immigrants or the threat of terrorism, news of these crimes leads to demands for instant action, police on every corner and draconian legislation. Inevitably, such alarm most affects the people who are least at risk from comparable assaults. Elderly women in rural areas are the safest of all categories. But the Home Office's Fear of Crime study found them to be the most responsive to accounts of violent crime on the streets of inner cities hundreds of miles away. They were trapped by fear behind the bars and locks of their homes.
If we are concerned for our safety, we must use our heads as well as our hearts. There are small, prudent steps we can take to reduce risks as we go about our lives. Expecting police to be omnipresent is a distraction and a fantasy. Let's get real.
Roger Graef is a film-maker and criminologistReuse content