Violent Crime is More Common in Europe than the USA

An interesting 2011 paper looks at crime rates since 1970 in the United States and 8 major European countries. The authors, mostly Italian, come to a conclusion that will surprise many people: Europe has become more dangerous than the United States: 

In 1970 the aggregate crime rate in the seven European countries we consider was 63% of the corresponding US figure, but by 2007 it was 85% higher than in the United States. This striking reversal results from a steady increase in the total crime rate in Europe during the last 40 years, and the decline in the US rate after 1990. The reversal of misfortunes is also observed for property and violent crimes.

A few charts:

Crime Rates in the USA and Europe Violent crimes usa europe
An important caveat is that these numbers exclude homicide. The US homicide rate is currently 3-4 times higher than in most European countries. As I've pointed out, this fact is due mostly to two factors: the extremely high rate of black-on-black homicide in the US (52% of all persons arrested in the USA for homicide are black), and of course the wide prevalence of guns in the USA.

Homicide is actually not terribly relevant to public safety. It's much more rare than all other violent crimes, and is overwhelmingly concentrated among certain subgroups. Most homicides occur within an existing relationship, and many others occur among criminal subgroups such as gangs or drug users. The chance of an ordinary European or American being murdered by a stranger in a crime of opportunity is infinitesimally small.

As for general background violence in society, Europe is, statistically, more dangerous. It's interesting to speculate about why this might be. I suspect mass hooligan confrontations between football fans probably plays some rule: Every weekend there are dozens of unruly confrontations between rival football fans which may generate dozens of arrests at once. But still, these have been going on for quite a while.

The authors of the study perform statistical analyses to try to determine why European crime has increased. They do not identify immigration as a significant factor, although they say this is mainly for lack of data. The one factor they do identify as significant is length of incarceration. They argue that Europe's comparatively lenient criminal-sentencing regimes help to explain the crime increase. They find that length of criminal sentence does have an effect on crime rates, and suggest that Europe should increase prison sentences.

At the end of the day, the universal rule for all developed societies holds: crime is concentrated among poor and minority areas, and if you avoid these, your chances of being the victim of a violent crime are minimal. But still, anyone who praises Europe as safer than the USA needs to update their stereotypes.

3 thoughts on “Violent Crime is More Common in Europe than the USA

  1. I cannot access the complete paper, but the exerpts shown here are not very convincing. This does not mean, that the results cannot be true, but judging from the data available to me, this paper appears to be a bit suspicious. Just a few obervations:

    – If you try to compare the rates of violent crimes in different countries, why on earth would you not include homicide in that comparison? It does not get more violent than that. It would also be important to carefully define “violent crimes” to be able to make a meaningful comparison.

    – I’m pretty sure that the quality of the available statistical data is not as good as those charts seem to imply. For instance, there is no real realiable source for crime rates in Germany. The authors most probably had to rely on the “Polizeiliche Kriminalstatistik” (PKS) for their assessment. This statistic only contains the number of crimes reported to the police. It is more or less a statistic on the intensity of police work, not crime rates. However, it is still the most reliable source for the situation in Germany. I doubt that “crime rates” are measured in the same way in other countries. If that is the case, there can be no simple comparison of the figures.

    – At least the results for Germany in the charts appear suspicious: According to the charts, there is a significant increase in both crime rates in general and violent crime rates over time. However, the number of crimes in Germany has remained more or less unchanged in recent years. The total number of crimes according to the PKS has decreased by around 10% between 1993 and 2014. The number of violent crimes was slightly lower in 2014 than in 1999.

    -There were around 180.000 cases of violent crime in Germany in 2014 according to the PKS. Based on a population of around 80 million people, this means that there were 2.x violent crimes per 1.000 inhabitants. The charts above, however, show around 8(!) violent crimes per 1.000 inhabitants for Germany which is quite surprising. The numbers for crimes in general is higher than the figures according to the PKS by a similar margin.

    – The extreme increase in violent crimes in the UK between 1998 and 2009 is highly suspicious as well. If there is no obvious reason why the figures should have quadrupled (!) in less than 10 years, you might want to check your statistical data.

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  2. All good points, but these problems are well-known and the paper (and various appendices and web appendices) deals with pretty much all the issues you mentioned. Send me an email and I’ll be happy to send you a copy.

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  3. Hi Andrew,
    lately I came across an article in “Scientific American” (October 2015, p 46) that might interest you.

    Here’s the lead: “Violence is a big problem in modern society and in cities in particular. Homicides were rampant in my hometown of Cali, Colombia, when I became mayor in 1992. Few people saw murder as a pressing health problem, but I did — probably because I had earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. I decided to apply the statistical methods used by public health experts to identify the sources of homicide and to reveal social and policy changes that might make a difference.”

    The article then describes how homicide rates went significantly down not only in Cali, but also in Bogota and Medellin when the same remedies were applied.

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