This morning I encountered a curious piece on the BBC News website. It’s promoting an online tool which can tell you what your statistical chance of being a ‘victim of crime’ is (this is for UK residents only). Everyone loves tools like this so I had a play around with it, and was pleased to see my chances of being a ‘victim of crime’ are generally lower than the national average. This is quite satisfying as I recently moved home, and one of the reasons was because I wanted to live in a nicer area.

If the piece left it at that there wouldn’t be much more to say. However, the article has an obvious message, which is that older people (particularly older women) have an excessive fear of crime, considering they are statistically much less likely to be victims of crime than young men, particularly if they are from deprived neighbourhoods. The piece closes by relating this to scaremongering about crime in the media.

The sanctimonious tone of the piece irritated me and I think it’s symptomatic of news reporting. The reason for this is that, while older people as a social group might be statistically less likely to be the victim of a crime than the young, this does not necessarily mean an individual’s fear of crime is inherently irrational. Young people who are statistically more likely to be a victim of crime are more likely to already be involved in activities which disproportionately increase their chances of being ‘victims’ of crime. For example, involved in the drug trade, or getting into fights at the pub. To be fair, the article does make half of this point, specifically with reference to drug use. However, it doesn’t make the other side of the point, which is the remaining random risk of being a victim of crime among those not involved in criminal activity.

It is exactly the vulnerability of older people to random crime which makes the prospect so scary. An older person who is subject to a mugging or bag theft has even less chance of escaping a crime, once it has been initiated, than a healthy younger person; while the consequences of such a crime – both in physical and mental damage – can be more severe. Therefore a lower risk of being a victim of crime in general does not necessarily mean that the specific fear of becoming a victim is irrational.

The report on which this online tool is based on contains a significant point in its Executive Summary, and it’s really problematic that the BBC article doesn’t refer to this. This is that being disabled, or having a limiting disability, significantly increases your chance of being a victim of crime. What this suggests is that vulnerability is a major risk factor, especially among those who do not have parents or guardians to look out for them. It’s this same criteria of vulnerability which makes some older people fearful of crime: predators naturally target ‘easy’ prey.

Obviously, some people do have an irrational fear of crime, including (but not limited to) older people. This can often be bound up with bigoted social attitudes about younger people, ethnic minorities, or certain identities or lifestyle choices. However, it’s ultimately counter-productive to use some crude statistics to try and shame people into changing their beliefs, especially when those statistics don’t tell the whole story.