chapter  6
Public perceptions of crime and safety
Pages 15

The study of public perceptions and reactions towards crime has become prominent in the criminology of ‘fear of crime’ since the 1980s. As Smith suggested in one of the early formulations of the concept, fear of crime broadly refers to ‘an emotional response to a threat: an admission to self and others that crime is intimidating; and an expression of one’s sense of danger and anxiety at the prospect of being harmed’ (Smith, 1987: 2). There is now a rich tradition in criminology that typically revolves around

the study of the prevalence, distribution and multifaceted meanings and experiences of crime fears as being related to ‘people’ (e.g., the socio-demographics, social relations and identities of people with crime concerns), ‘places’ (e.g., spatial or structural contextual conditions that shape crime concerns), or ‘problems’ (e.g., social exclusion, unemployment, poverty, environmental planning) (Innes, 2014: 5-6; see also Pain, 2000). In societies where high levels of crime have become a routine social fact (Skogan, 1990; Garland, 2001; Farrall et al., 2009), public concerns about crime may spur moral panics signalling wider anxieties about social order, underscoring boundaries of ‘us’ (respectable, law-abiding society) versus ‘them’ (the criminals, social deviants) (Cohen, 2002 [1972]; Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). In many Anglo-Western societies such as the USA and the UK, fears tend to focus on stereotypical ‘others’ on the margins of society whose presence threatens mainstream life and values. As Garland (1996: 461) has pointed out in relation to ‘criminologies of the other’, the association of danger with the ‘threatening outcast, the fearsome stranger, the excluded and the embittered’, is also invoked by politicians to ‘govern through’ the fear of crime (Simon, 2007; see also Roberts et al., 2003). To what extent can these criminological insights help us make sense of social reactions to crime and public sentiments about safety in low-crime societies beyond Anglo-Western contexts? This chapter examines public perceptions of crime and disorder in Hong

Kong. Hong Kong has consistently been described as one of the safest cities in

the world and was ranked 11th out of 50 global cities in terms of overall safety in the 2015 The Economist Safe Cities Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2015). According to official figures, Hong Kong’s crime rate per 100,000 population in 2012 was 1,061. ‘Though higher than that of Singapore (584), the figure was lower than those of Paris (10,455), London (9,500), New York (2,361) and Tokyo (1,387). This indicate[s] that the overall law and order situation in Hong Kong [is] rather good when compared with other major cities’ (Hong Kong Police press release, 28 January 2014, ‘Overall law and order situation further improved in 2013’). On the surface, Hong Kong does not exhibit the conventional signs of disorder which may point to crime and social decline central to the oft-cited ‘broken window thesis’ in other high-crime societies (cf. Wilson and Kelling, 1982). There are ‘very few outward signs of grave physical disorder such as public drinking and vandalism. In Hong Kong, people do not write on the walls or drink in public’ (La Grange, 2011: 1190). Against this background, the subject of fear of crime has been ‘virtually unexplored’ in Hong Kong (Chui et al., 2012: 479). So what do people in Hong Kong actually think and feel about crime and disorder? Do they feel safe, and if not, why not? This chapter aims at providing some pointers to researchers and students

interested in understanding public perceptions about crime as a social issue. Our starting point is that public sentiments and perceptions about safety are not a simple correlate of overall crime levels and aggregate crime rates. Instead, people’s sense of security is influenced by crime as well as what they perceive as troubling behaviours and disorderly environments that send ‘signals’ (Innes, 2004, 2014) to them about the distribution of risks and threats in particular locales. Furthermore, people’s fear of crime is multifaceted, changeable, and embedded in the local details of individuals’ circumstances and everyday experiences in their neighbourhood and beyond. As Pain (2000: 368) suggests, ‘we all move in and out of shades of fear over our life courses, influenced by our own experiences and by spatial, social and temporal situation’. In the rest of this chapter, we provide a brief review of the existing (largely quantitative) studies of crime victimisation and public perceptions of safety in Hong Kong. We then draw on the findings of our focus group study on fear of crime in Hong Kong in order to understand what citizens think and feel about dangerous ‘others’ and anti-social behaviour through their ‘crime talk’ (Sasson, 1995). We conclude by highlighting the potential of the ‘signal crimes perspective’ (Innes, 2014) in providing new directions for understanding the situated and local nature of people’s crime fears and perceptions of safety in Hong Kong.