Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Emerson Poll: Perception vs. Reality

Crime is once again the hot-button issue here in Chicago and in cities across the country. Yesterday's funeral following the killing of Chicago police officer Ella French has understandably amplified the anger, fears, and frustrations many feel about violent crime. 

At the same time, a poll was released showing crime to be the overwhelmingly top concern of Chicagoans, dwarfing worries about the spiking covid pandemic, the reopening of schools, and every other issue. But let's take a deeper look and see if there's a gap between that perception and reality. 

What's wrong with this statement?
A WGN-TV/Emerson College poll of Chicago residents found that crime is on the rise, with 62% saying there is more crime now in Chicago than there was a year ago. Twenty-four percent (24%) feel that the amount of crime has stayed the same, and 14% feel that there is less crime today.
Well, for one thing, you can't determine whether or not a city's crime rate is going up or down by taking a poll. Polls like Emerson may give us a sense of people's changing perceptions of crime, or the favorability or unfavorability of certain politicians, but those most often depend on how questions are asked, who's being asked, and who's doing the asking. 

Case in point: Chicago crime isn't really on the rise , although it's completely understandable why so many feel that it is, given local media's attention paid to daily crime reports. While crime rates have been falling steadily over the past two decades, homicides so far this year have risen. 
An NBC News analysis of Chicago Police Department data going back 20 years shows that overall, violent crime continued its slow decline during the pandemic. When all categories of violent crime are added together, the total declined by 46 percent over 20 years and held steady between the first half of both 2019 and 2021.
There's some  research showing  that public demand drives coverage of bad news — that people have a “negativity bias.” But I think it's the other way around, with the media driving the bias. 

It's not that I doubt the veracity of the poll itself. I don't. I just think that polling and news groups tend to overstate the significance of their results and blur the distinction between perception and reality. Polls shape and influence perceptions as well as measuring them. That's something we've all come to recognize in the last few national elections. 

According to the Emerson poll, crime, and especially violent crime, is the number-one concern of Chicagoans. 
Respondents were asked what the number one issue facing Chicago today is. A plurality of residents (44%) feel that crime is the number one issue facing the city.... Compared to the WGN-TV/Emerson poll in June, crime has risen six points as a top issue, from 38% to 44%.

What happened in the city in June and July to cause a six-point jump in perception is not clear from WGN's report. I would guess that it's the daily coverage of the recent wave of horrifying carjackings or the terrible rise in summertime gun violence that has put all of us on edge lately. 

While crime dominates popular concern, all other issues were below 12%: Covid-19 (12%), education/schools (8%), jobs (8%), police reform (7%), healthcare (7%), housing (5%), and homelessness (2%). Six percent (6%) of respondents said something else. 

The widening poverty gap isn't on the list of concerns offered in the poll, although homelessness is and ranks at the very bottom. There's no connection made by the pollsters between this widening gap and crime or contextualizing crime in the way questions are asked. There were no questions either, regarding the easy flow of illegal guns into the city.

Many people around the country perceive Chicago as the number-one crime city in America. But the actual numbers paint quite a different picture. Trump repeatedly criticized Chicago, saying it was “worse than Afghanistan.” I myself engaged in similar hyperbole a few years ago, referring to Chicago as "Chiraq" a la Spike Lee, just to make a point. But it turns out that our city hasn't even made the top-30 list when it comes to urban crime rates. 

A recent New York Times quiz revealed some common misperceptions about crime trends, the most widely held of which involved Chicago. Readers were asked to rank Chicago nationally in murder rate. The options were first, third, fifth, or seventh. Most picked “first,” and only 8 percent chose the right answer (seventh).

I was also a little surprised to learn that even with Chicago students about to return to school in a matter of days in the midst of a surging pandemic, only 8% had education/schools at the top of their list of concerns. In fact, the surging pandemic only made the top of the concern list for 12% of Chicagoans. Is that because Chicago is doing so much better than other big cities in containment? I don't have an answer on that one.

Another surprising (to me) result showed a majority (70%) of respondents having at least a somewhat positive opinion of the Chicago Police Department, while 23% have a somewhat or very negative opinion, and 7% are unsure. 

I'm only surprised at how that perception has changed since its low point, following the police murders of Laquan McDonald in 2014. The fallout from that killing and the political cover-up that following drove then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel from office. Polls at the time showed: "nearly two-thirds of African-American voters in the city said they didn’t trust him, and half of all likely voters thought the mayor should resign. The Emerson poll shows concerns about police reform now dropping into single-digit. 

Not surprising was a strong majority (70%) indicating support for a reinstatement of an indoor mask mandate in Chicago, with 21% opposed and 9% unsure. Such a mandate goes into effect citywide, tomorrow. 

Finally, the poll shows that Chicagoans appear pretty evenly split on Mayor Lightfoot's performance so far, with 46% disapproval and 43% approval. While her approval ratings are down about 20% from a year ago, I'm surprised that they're as high as they are, given the divisive nature of current politics, extremely negative City Hall press coverage, and an unrelenting hate campaign organized by both FOP and CTU leaders who have never gotten past Lightfoot's defeat of their candidate in the last election. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Agree? Disagree? Let me hear from you.