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Americans are more worried about crime than they have been since before 9/11

Authorities investigate this week near the scene where a woman’s body was found in a creek in Austin, Tex. (Marshall Tidrick/Daily Texan via AP)

Americans are more concerned about crime than they have been at any point since the turn of the century, according to a new poll, exceeding levels of concern about things like terrorism, climate change and illegal immigration.

The spike in concern comes after violent crimes increased slightly during at least part of 2015, with murder rates spiking in a number of large cities, prompting increased media coverage. As we noted last year, Americans perpetually think crime is going up — even when crime has actually fallen. Polls also show that Americans have been less and less concerned about being the victims of crimes.

In a Gallup poll last month, more than half of Americans (53 percent) said that they worried “a great deal” about crime and violence in the country. This is the highest level Gallup has recorded since it first began asking that question in 2001, when more than six in 10 Americans said they were very worried about the subject.

After Gallup began asking the question in March 2001, crime was quickly eclipsed by terrorism, the war in Iraq, the economy and health care as the issues that worried Americans the most.

So what prompted the rise in anxiety about crime? One possibility is the uptick in crime. Preliminary data from the FBI shows that violent crimes inched up in the first half of 2015 over the year before.

Americans think crime is on the rise, aren’t so worried about being the victims of crime

The increased number of homicides in major U.S. cities prompted heated media coverage, which may have also played a role in public sentiment. And reports about spikes in killings based on relatively small pools of data could ultimately “cloud perceptions of crime,” as the Brennan Center for Justice said in an analysis of crime last year.

The Brennan Center studied the murder rates in the country’s biggest cities and reported that many of these places saw big increases in 2015 over the year before. Yet, in its analysis, the Brennan Center also wrote that even with these spikes, murder rates remain “at all-time historic lows.”

“Notably, in absolute terms, murder rates are so low in many cities now that an increase or decrease of just a few occurrences can cause a large change in percentage terms,” the report stated.

The Brennan Center report, which studied data collected from the FBI and city police departments, concluded that while “headlines suggesting a coming crime wave make good copy, a look at the available data shows there is no evidence to support that claim.”

The surge in violence has persisted in some places. So far this year, violent crime has spiked in Chicago, which reported a staggering rise in fatal shootings and other crimes in the first months of 2016. Other large cities  where killings increased last year did not see jumps as extreme as Chicago’s so far this year.

The FBI’s preliminary numbers on violent crime last year

Gallup found concerns about crime rising among a number of different groups of Americans nationwide, regardless of race, age, education level or political affiliation. These increases still left considerable gaps between groups, though. Fewer men say they are very worried about crime (49 percent) than women (56 percent); white people (46 percent) are far less concerned than non-white people (68 percent).

People who did not attend college (70 percent) were more than twice as likely as people who graduated from college (32 percent) to be very concerned about crime. Republicans (53 percent), Democrats (52 percent) and independents (53 percent) all registered the same basic level of concern.

The Gallup poll also asked people how much they worry about various problems facing the country. Crime was one of only three issues raised that a majority of people said worried them “a great deal,” trailing health care (55 percent said they were very worried about that) and the economy (also 55 percent).

The possibility of terrorist attacks in the United States greatly worried just under half of people — though the poll was carried out in the first week of March, before attacks at an airport and rail station in Brussels killed dozens of people and injured hundreds more, again raising concerns about terrorism worldwide.

Gallup reported that nearly half of Americans were very worried about hunger and homelessness and Social Security, while fewer than four in 10 Americans said they were greatly concerned about unemployment, illegal immigration and race relations. Climate change greatly worried one in three Americans, while four in 10 people said that issue worried them only a little or not at all, making it the largest “no, we’re not worried about that” topic in Gallup’s poll.

Further reading:

Chicago’s staggering increase in shootings and killings

The Watch: There’s no evidence of a ‘new nationwide crime wave’

What law enforcement officials say behind closed doors