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Highly-Publicized London Crimes Alter Public Perceptions About Violence - 2002-02-21

Gripping headlines across the front pages of Britain's popular newspapers tell of a violent crime wave engulfing London. But this is only part of the story.

Some particularly violent crimes have hit London recently, and it appears that just a few of these terrible acts can change public perceptions.

Gruesome murders - like that of a real estate agent who was stabbed to death in a car-jacking gone wrong, or the killing in a London park of a teenager who was later set alight with a flammable liquid - have dominated the headlines during the past few weeks.

These highly-publicized cases are frightening the public, and because of this some want tougher action based on the "zero tolerance" approach demonstrated in New York City. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spent time last week talking about his program with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett, who is in charge of law and order in Britain.

But British observers say transplanting the New York model would not necessarily work. The situation, they maintain, is more complicated.

London, for instance, covers roughly twice the geographical size of New York, yet has half as many police officers. Most of those officers on the beat in the British capital do not carry firearms, and that is the way most of them want it.

Also, a closer examination of the latest batch of crime statistics shows that violent crime of all types is actually down, despite the highly-publicized recent cases.

But street crime in London is on the rise, with muggings increasing and cell phone thefts skyrocketing. Crime figures last month were 49 percent higher than those for January, 2001.

A survey last year found that nearly a third of Britons said they never walked alone near their house after dark. And London police report that nearly 6,000 people have been arrested during the past two weeks in a major crackdown on soaring street crime.

Criminologist Marion Fitzgerald says the general public must retain a sense of perspective about the actual level of crime on the streets of London compared with the rest of the country. "The danger is, of course, that in the country at large there is a perception of a sudden, huge rise of risk and danger, which is not the case," he said. "And it is getting a balance between those two, recognizing what is being ignored and what is going on in inner city areas where kids, in particular, are living in tremendous fear and the danger of engendering unnecessary fear in the rest of the country."

While most, but not all, categories of crime are heading down, anxieties about crime in Britain is certainly growing. And as many psychologists point out, simply fearing crime is enough to make you a victim of crime.