Originally published in The Age. With Tammy Mills and Simon Schluter.
Victoria experienced its steepest drop in crime in a decade, but on the streets in Melbourne’s south-east, the statistics aren’t necessarily changing perception.
Cranbourne. It’s one of Australia’s fastest growing suburbs; a southeastern boom town with a steady stream of young families settling in. But in 2016, the number of home invasions was climbing. Criminals were breaking into homes every second day.
New statistics published this week show a steep drop in the crime rate. Home invasions are down, carjackings are down, thefts are down, and yet, in Cranbourne, there was a mixed reaction.
“I’ve lived here all my life. I know a lot of people around town, and I’d say it’s getting worse,” Jodie, 42, said.
“It could be down, I don’t know,” 72-year-old Arthur said. “But there’s always something happening around here.”
Perception is a big part of policing. So is locking up the baddies, but if people don’t feel safe in their cities – regardless of their likelihood of becoming a victim of crime – it can affect all sectors of society.
And right now, Victoria has a massive perception problem.
“This is where America was headed a couple of decades ago and we’re just catching up and it’s a real shame,” US-born Monash University criminologist Rebecca Wickes said.
There’s a few things at play here, Professor Wickes said. First, we in the media publish a prominent stories about, for example, a spate of home invasions. People see them, read them and the crimes may consciously, or unconsciously, be on their mind.
“Home invasions really freak people out,” Professor Wickes said.
“There is nothing scarier than lying in your bed at night blissfully asleep and someone breaks into your home … But the reality is, you should be more worried about driving to work and getting hit by a car.”
People are also now bombarded by the information. It’s not only in the newspaper and the 6pm news anymore, it’s on your mobile phone and there when you log-in to social media.
Bridget, 29, was visiting Cranbourne but is from Pakenham, about 20 kilometres east as the crow flies.
“Pakenham is probably just as bad!” she said.
“[But] I don’t think crime is getting worse – I think Facebook makes it sound worse. We’re always going to have bad people.”
There’s also the huge issue with trust in institutions such as the media, as evidenced by the #fakenews phenomenon.
“The media are under a lot of pressure to be competitive, to engage in the 24-hour news cycle, but we have to get better with balance,” Professor Wickes said.
All of this, and we haven’t even talked about what it is like for people who have survived a crime, such as Michelle, whose husband and son fought off thugs who invaded their Hillside home in 2016.
“We’re still suffering, we’re still fearful, we’re still alert,” she said on Friday.
And fear is at the heart of this. Michelle’s trauma has understandably made her fearful, and fear is infectious. It also often not rational, fear of the unknown, fear for your safety. The reality is that if you were to worry constantly about something, fear of dying in a car accident (255 deaths in Victoria in 2017) would be far more rational than being kept awake worrying about being confronted by a burglar in a violent home invasion.
“I have great faith in this country,” Associate Professor Wickes said.
“There is a way through this… to move beyond this populist wave of fear.”
What others in Cranbourne were saying…
Manu, 45, La Atrium Cafe owner. His cafe has been broken into, as well as his home.
I hear from customers that there are drug users in the car parks, especially in the evening hours. Still, people are a bit reluctant to come to Cranbourne at night.
Someone needs to get to that root and get rid of it. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how good things look – it’s a sinking town.
Bill Walker. 77. Pearcedale.
“I feel safe enough in my home because we’re off the road a fair bit.”