Collective Efficacy and Fear of Crime in the Mat-Su Borough

Collective Efficacy and Fear of Crime in the Mat-Su Borough

Sharon Chamard

"Collective Efficacy and Fear of Crime in the Mat-Su Borough" by Sharon Chamard. Alaska Justice Forum 25(4): 4-7 (Winter 2009). Based on 1,068 surveys returned in the 2008 annual community survey of Matanuska-Susitna Borough residents, this article explores the relationship between fear of crime and three possible explantory factors: collective efficacy, which refers to the community's ability to control the behavior of its inhabitants and to organize when needed to attract amenities and repel negative influences; social ties, which is a measure of how socially connected people are to others in their neighborhoods; and disorder, which measures how many indicators of both social and physical disorder are reported by survey respondents. The relationship between these three factors as found in the Mat-Su survey is consistent with other findings in the scholarly literature, and indicates that increasing perceptions of collective efficacy will lead to reductions in fear of crime.

Since 2006, the Justice Center has collaborated with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on an annual survey of Borough residents' attitudes towards their community and local government services. The 2008 survey was distributed to 2,300 adult heads-of-household in the Mat-Su Borough. Of those, 307 were returned as undeliverable. The analyses presented here are based on the 1,068 surveys returned (a 53.6% response rate); some of these surveys were received after the final report was written in late 2008.

Close to 60 percent of respondents were women. The majority of respondents (85%) were white; the largest minority group was "Alaska Native or American Indian" with fewer than five percent of respondents. The median household income was between $50,000 and $74,999. "Some college, no degree" was the median education level reported by respondents. The average age of respondents was 46 years old. Compared to the 2007 survey, there was a major shift in the percentage of respondents from urban and rural areas. In 2007, the borough was broken down into census block groups and the same number of respondents was selected from each block group. This ensured an adequate number of responses from sparsely populated rural areas, but also meant that rural residents were oversampled relative to their proportion in the borough population. In 2007, 19.5 percent of respondents were from urban areas (classified as Houston, Palmer and Wasilla), while 80.5 percent were from rural areas in the borough. In 2008, the sample was taken from the borough as a whole. Consequently, 86.0 percent of respondents were from urban areas-Houston, Palmer and Wasilla-and only 13.9 percent were from rural areas in the borough. (See Table 1.)

Table 1. Mat-Su Community Survey 2008: Selected Demographic Characteristics

The purpose of this article is to explore the relationship between fear of crime and three possible explanatory factors. The first of these is collective efficacy, which refers broadly to the community's ability to control the behavior of its inhabitants and to organize when needed to attract amenities and repel negative influences. The second is social ties, which is a measure of how socially connected people are to others in their neighborhoods. The third explanatory factor is disorder, specifically, how many indicators of both social (e.g., public drug sales, panhandling, and loitering) and physical (e.g., abandoned buildings, trash, and graffiti) disorder are reported by survey respondents.

The relationship between fear of crime, collective efficacy, the quantity of social ties, and perceptions of disorder in the neighborhood is complicated. Researchers have generally found that fear of crime is positively related to perceptions of disorder (the more disorder people report, the more fearful they are likely to be), negatively related to social integration (the more social ties a person has, the lower his or her fear of crime), and negatively associated with collective efficacy (the higher a person's perceptions of collective efficacy, the lower his or her fear of crime). Research has also found that collective efficacy itself is strongly affected by the degree of social integration and perceptions of disorder: when people feel socially connected in their communities, their perceptions of collective efficacy are higher. This may be because these attachments to neighbors increase feelings of trust, which in turn leads people to be more likely to believe that their neighbors will intervene when needed to provide informal social control. Perceptions of social disorder have been found to be negatively associated with collective efficacy. The more indicators of disorder people see in their neighborhoods, the lower they score on measures of perceived collective efficacy.

Before discussing how fear of crime, collective efficacy, neighborhood disorder and social ties interact in the Mat-Su Borough, each variable is described in more detail.

Description of Variables

Fear of Crime. Fear of crime was measured by six questions. As shown in Table 2, most people who answered the survey reported low levels of fear about being a victim of burglary, sexual assault, murder, or kidnapping, or of being attacked with a weapon: people were more fearful of burglary than the other crimes. This somewhat reflects the relative risks of being a victim of these particular crimes. In 2007, in the three urban areas of Houston, Palmer and Wasilla, police received reports on a combined total of 89 burglaries, 8 completed and attempted sexual assaults, and 31 assaults with a weapon. There were no murders; kidnapping is not reported in the Uniform Crime Reports.

The six measures of fear of crime were highly correlated, so an index was created by adding scores on the six measures. The possible score for the index measure ranged from a low of 6 (someone who reported no fear on all questions) to a high of 24 (someone who reported the highest level of fear on all six questions). The average score for this fear of crime index was 8.7, and only one-quarter of the sample scored above 10 on this measure. Cronbach's alpha (α) measures the internal reliability of the index; if the items combined to form the index are measuring the same underlying concept (here, fear of crime), alpha should be over 0.7. In this case it was 0.855.

Clearly, fear of crime is not a problem in the Mat-Su Borough. Other studies, primarily conducted in larger urban areas, have found that fear of crime is higher in females than males, minorities than whites, and the elderly compared to younger people. Analyses of the Mat-Su Borough Community Survey data showed no significant difference between men (8.6) and women (8.7) on the fear of crime index measure. Non-whites reported somewhat higher levels of fear (9.1) than did whites (8.6), but this difference was not statistically significant. Fear of crime was not related to marital status, education level, household income or years lived in the Mat-Su Borough. Contrary to expectations, fear of crime was significantly lower in those 65 and older (7.8) than in those under 65 (8.8).

Table 2. Mat-Su Community Survey 2008: Fear of Crime Measures

Collective Efficacy. Collective efficacy has two dimensions-social cohesion and trust, and capacity for informal social control. Ten questions were used to measure collective efficacy. The questions and the percentage of respondents in each category are shown in Table 3. Most people rated collective efficacy quite highly, with an average score on each measure of about 3-"agree," with the exception of "Yours is a close-knit neighborhood," which averaged 2.5 out of 4.

There was a significant degree of correlation among the ten variables, which suggests they are all tapping into the same general concept. This is to be expected from a theoretical standpoint, and is entirely consistent with other research that has used these questions to measure collective efficacy. Accordingly, the variables were combined into a single index (Cronbach's α = 0.885) with a possible score ranging from a low of 10 (someone who answered "strongly disagree" to every question) to a high of 40 (someone who answered "strongly agree" to every question. The average score for this collective efficacy index was 28.8.

Household income, race/ethnicity, gender, education level, number of years lived in the Mat-Su Borough, and marital status had no meaningful effect on perceptions of collective efficacy. However, people 65 and older, compared to younger people, had a significantly higher mean score (30.1 vs. 28.6; p < .01) on the collective efficacy index.

Table 3. Mat-Su Community Survey 2008: Collective Efficacy Measures

Social Ties. This variable is an index measuring social connectedness in the community, and was based on four questions asking about borrowing from or loaning things to neighbors, visiting with neighbors, degree of intimacy with neighbors, and the number of friends and relatives in the neighborhood. Scores on this index (Cronbach's α = 0.777) ranged from a low of 4 (someone who reported no interaction as measured by the questions) to a high of 20 (someone who reported maximum levels of measured interaction). The average score was just over 10, and half of the respondents scored between 8 and 13.

Just as with perceptions of collective efficacy, household income, race/ethnicity, gender, education level, number of years lived in the Mat-Su Borough, and marital status were not related to the quantity of respondents' social ties. Again, age was positively associated with social ties. The older people were, the more social ties they reported. Those under 25 scored 9.95 while those over 65 scored 11.3; scores for age groups in between increased gradually. This is not unexpected. It takes time to forge social connections with others; older people have had longer to do this. Interestingly, this relationship is independent of the number of years lived in the Borough, which means that age itself, not how long someone has lived in the area, is associated with social ties.

Disorder. This variable combines responses to 14 questions asking respondents about the existence in their areas of various "neighborhood conditions" related to physical and social disorder (e.g., abandoned cars or buildings, empty lots, trash in the streets, public drug sales, and prostitution). Each condition listed was worth one point, so the lowest possible score on this index was 0; the highest possible score was 14 (Cronbach's α = 0.775). Over half of the respondents reported just two of these conditions, and three-quarters reported four or fewer.

Men and women did not differ on this measure, nor did whites compared to other ethnic/racial groups. Marital status was likewise not significant. Older people were significantly less likely to report physical and social disorder (score of 2.0) compared to those under age 65 (score of 3.1). Also, as length of time lived in the Mat-Su Borough increased, so did perceived disorder. It may be that the awareness of social and physical disorder is cumulative with time lived in an area and increasing familiarity with the community. Household income was negatively related to perceived disorder. Those with household incomes below $20,000 reported an average of 3.7 "neighborhood conditions." This declines with each income grouping until reaching a low of 2.5 for those with household incomes of $100,000 or greater. People with low education levels (less than a high school diploma) reported on average 1.3 neighborhood conditions. Those with at least a high school diploma reported on average 3.0 conditions. This was a very significant difference, and is curious in light of the previous relationship between income and disorder. With further analysis, the relationship between education level and disorder disappeared when controlling for household income, which means that most of the relationship between educational level and disorder can be explained by household income.

What Accounts for Fear of Crime?

The relationship between our measures of collective efficacy and fear of crime is weak and negative (r = -.264, p <.01). That is, as fear of crime increases, collective efficacy decreases, and as collective efficacy increases, fear of crime decreases. This finding is not unexpected, and although it is statistically significant, the causal link between the two variables is not known. Other factors might be relevant. For example, people who feel a stronger sense of connectedness to their neighbors (as measured by the variable social ties) tend to report lower levels of fear (r = -.0789, p < .05). This relationship, though statistically significant, is extremely weak. Controlling for the level of collective efficacy removes the relationship between fear of crime and connectedness; this relationship, then, is largely explained by collective efficacy. See Table 4 for a correlation matrix of these variables.

The strongest predictor of fear of crime is disorder. This association, though positive, is weak (r = .298, p <.01). However, it continues to be significant even when controlling for collective efficacy and social ties. The more neighborhood indicators of disorder that are reported by respondents, the higher the level of fear. Again, as with collective efficacy, this relationship is not surprising, but its causal nature cannot be determined. It may be that people are fearful because they are aware of social and physical disorder. It is just as likely that being fearful makes one more inclined to see certain neighborhood conditions as disorderly, while a less fearful person would perceive identical situations as ordinary and no cause for concern.

Table 4. Mat-Su Community Survey 2008: Correlation Matrix for Fear of Crime, Collective Efficacy, Neighborhood Conditions, and Social Ties Indices

How do People Respond to Fear of Crime?

Respondents were asked about self-protection activities they might do to feel more secure in their homes and neighborhoods. Table 5 lists these activities and the percentages of people who reported doing them. Over 90 percent said they lock their doors at night and when not at home. Nearly 70 percent reported to have a gun in the home for self-protection. Other activities engaged in by more than half of the respondents include keeping a phone in the bedroom, having a dog, and having outside or automatic lights. About half of the respondents said they lock their doors during the day or when at home. Smaller percentages of people had security systems in their homes or vehicles. Fewer than ten percent of people said they take self-defense lessons, attend Neighborhood Watch meetings, or have developed a signal for "danger" with their neighbors.

Table 5. Mat-Su Community Survey 2008: Fear of Crime, Collective Efficacy, Social Ties, and Neighborhood Conditions Measures by Self-Protection Activities

A series of t-tests were done to see if there are any differences between people who reported doing these self-protection activities and those who did not with respect to average scores on the measures of fear of crime, perceptions of collective efficacy, social ties, and perceptions of disorder. With the exception of attending Neighborhood Watch meetings, every self-protection activity was significantly associated with higher levels of fear of crime. However, it is worth keeping in mind that even the most fearful people within this group, those who have developed a signal for "danger" with their neighbors, still scored on average 10.3 out of a possible 24. While this group may be more fearful relative to others in the study, on the whole, they do not report high levels of fear of crime.

With regard to collective efficacy, though overall those who claimed to do particular activities scored lower, for the most part these differences were not statistically significant. Interestingly, those who said they lock their doors during the day (about half of all respondents) scored significantly lower on collective efficacy than those who did not report locking their doors. Respondents who reported engaging in self-protection activities that rely on other people (attending Neighborhood Watch meeting and developing a signal for "danger") scored significantly higher on collective efficacy. It may be that people who practice types of self-protection that rely upon actions taken by others in the event of trouble do so because they trust others to take action if necessary. Trust in neighbors to intervene when informal social control is needed is one of the dimensions of the collective efficacy measure.

There was no clear pattern between average scores on the social ties variable and involvement in self-protection activities. Two activities (attending Neighborhood Watch meetings and developing a signal for "danger" with one's neighbors) were significantly associated with higher social ties scores. People who know many of their neighbors by sight or by name, who often borrow from or loan things to their neighbors, or who frequently visit with their neighbors, are more likely, relative to those who do these things less often, to rely on self-protection activities that require cooperation from neighbors. The mechanism at work here is similar to that discussed previously regarding collective efficacy. Those who engage in these three self-protection activities-locking doors during the day, locking doors at night, and using a vehicle security system-scored significantly lower on the social ties measure compared to respondents who did not do these activities. These activities are all variations on "target hardening." People who have little social contact with their neighbors may feel vulnerable and motivated to protect their property more so than people who are socially connected to those who live nearby. For just about every self-protection activity, those who said they do the activity scored higher on the disorder measure than those who said they do not do the activity.

But overall, perceptions of disorder did not seem strongly associated with self-protection activities. Only people who said they keep a firearm, have a dog, have outside or automatic lights, or take self-defense lessons scored significantly higher on the disorder index than those who did not report doing these activities. These self-protection activities do not entail cooperation with others; they are individualistic, not community-based, responses. Given the negative correlation between neighborhood disorder and collective efficacy (r = -.375), it is not surprising to see that those who perceive higher levels of disorder are unlikely to respond by cooperating with others for crime prevention purposes.

Conclusion

The relationship between fear of crime, collective efficacy, the quantity of social ties, and perceptions of disorder in the Mat-Su Survey is consistent with other findings in the scholarly literature. Fear of crime was found to be positively related to perceptions of disorder, negatively related to social integration, and negatively associated with collective efficacy. Data from the Mat-Su Survey also show that collective efficacy is moderately affected by the degree of social integration and perceptions of disorder. Perceptions of social disorder have been found, both in the literature and in this study, to be negatively associated with collective efficacy. Despite the clear finding that most respondents in the present study are not particularly fearful of crime, variables that have been shown in research in other jurisdictions to have predictive power are able to adequately discern differences within the narrow range of "fearfulness" of Mat-Su Borough residents.

Based on this study, and similar findings from other research, it is reasonable to argue that increasing perceptions of collective efficacy will lead to reductions in fear of crime. Collective efficacy can be increased by bringing neighbors together to define common problems and to work collectively towards solutions.

Sharon Chamard is an Assistant Professor with the Justice Center.