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18 November 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

I will be burgled and other urban myths

They are trembling in the suburbs

By Johann Hari

It is Halloween, and Mandy Stevens is terrified. She has bolted her door and sworn to ignore anybody who calls by. She has even switched off all the lights so nobody can tell that she is in. She isn’t superstitious, and it isn’t goblins that she is afraid of. Last year, the 71-year-old didn’t have anything to give to a group of teenagers who were trick-or-treating, so they threw eggs all over her garden. This year, she says: “Who knows what they might do? I heard on the news that one old woman had lit fireworks pushed through her letter-box and her house burned down.”

Everybody in Stanmore, a fairly wealthy north London suburb, knows stories like this. If you do a door-to-door interview down just one street, every single person will give you tales of old men (invariably veterans) being beaten, hard drugs being openly peddled, and cars being set alight. Yet these crimes invariably happened on the next street, “in my friend’s street”, “on the news” or even – as one woman explained – “on The Bill“.

Mandy was the first person I could find, after knocking at 41 houses, who had personal experience of a crime – and even with her, it was the prospect of another, far worse (and possibly apocryphal) crime that was making her live in fear. Everybody was convinced that crime was rife, but seeking the victims of this spate of lawlessness was rather like hunting the snark in Lewis Carroll’s poem. They were always just around the corner, somewhere beyond, or perhaps only to be found in the imagination.

Evidence of low-level vandalism on the streets was, however, plain to see. There were indeed broken eggs scattered across the streets, the work of gangs of young lads – they looked as if they were in their early teens – who had been having some kind of Halloween fight. There was some graffiti, and even (as though planted by Alastair Campbell to make his point) some chewing-gum on the pavement, which I couldn’t get off my shoe.

In middle-class areas, it is this petty criminality that gives the impression that rapists and muggers are prowling.

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“How can you say there isn’t much crime around here?” Jean Cohen, 43, snapped at me. “Look! There’s rubbish all up this street, and the phone-box has been smashed up again!” She offered this as though it was evidence that she was about to be shot by thieves. In fact, all the data shows that the vast majority of crimes are concentrated in poor areas, and that petty street crime is almost the only criminality to be found in wealthy areas.

Yet it is impossible to find anybody who will credit these facts. “Of course, crime has gone up in the past five years,” said Abigail Morris, 32. “It’s common sense! My mum has been burgled twice, and that never used to happen.”

I asked what she thought the odds were of her being burgled that year. She guessed one in ten; the truth is one in 50 for the overall population, and even less likely for those in rich areas.

Abigail said she simply didn’t believe it. “A woman in my office was burgled, too,” she insisted, as though that refuted the statistics.

I explained that the most reliable study of crime, the British Crime Survey which questions 33,000 members of the public (and is completely independent of government), shows that burglary has fallen 7 per cent since 1997 (and is almost always committed by the poor on their poor neighbours, not against the middle class).

She laughed. “You’re far more likely to be burgled now! Everyone knows that!” How do they know it? “Because you just do. Look! There’s graffiti over there! You’d never have got that five years ago. Everyone knows crime is going up. It’s in the papers [she reads the Daily Mail] . . . Statistics are just statistics. I know what’s going on.”

In the minds of Stanmore residents, it is a short journey from discarded Wrigley’s to robbery. If the government can deal, as it proposes, with the former, it might – just might – begin to

persuade people of the truth: that property crimes are falling, too.

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