Ron Harris / AP Images

We’ll never craft appropriate policies until we stop worrying about random acts of violence.

It’s one of the great dilemmas of the modern era: in poll after poll, Americans consistently say they believe our society is getting more violent and more dangerous, when the opposite is true. The results of this chronic misperception have been disastrous to U.S. communities, beginning with its cities, and now spreading to suburban neighborhoods.

To arrive at an accurate picture of misperceived violence in America, we turn to two charts. The first chronicles public opinion of violent crime from 1989 through 2014, based on Gallup polls. On this chart, the darkest green represents the percentage of Americans who believe there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago. The lighter green represents the percentage of Americans who believe there is less crime, and the lightest green represents those who believe the percentage has stayed the same. Overwhelmingly and consistently, most Americans believe that crime in America is getting worse.

In fact, Americans see their biggest cities as inherently unsafe, even though all available evidence points to the contrary. Big U.S. cities and metro areas have actually seen the largest declines in crime over the past two decades. According to Elizabeth Kneebone and Steven Raphael of the Brookings Institution, “both violent and property crime declined significantly between 1990 and 2008 in the 100 largest metro areas, with the largest decreases occurring in cities.”

The second chart below, created by Michelle Hopgood at the Martin Prosperity Institute, uses data from the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics to show that overall crime in America—and violent crime in particular—has also declined dramatically over the same time period. On the chart below, the pink line represents the number of violent offenses in the U.S. per 100,000 population, while the purple line represents the number of prisoners per 100,000 population. After increasing throughout the 1960s and 1970s and remaining steady at astonishing rates in the 1980s, most violent crime has declined almost every year since 1991.

So what reinforces our misperceptions, and what might the consequences be?

To start, Americans are scared to death by incidents of crime, a feeling no doubt perpetuated by select news outlets keen to feed into this hysteria. Even behavioral psychologists have shown that we overreact to individual incidents. People are more scared of being killed by a sniper than of driving their car down a freeway—a much more dangerous and deadly activity.

Take the example of the recent highway shootings in Phoenix. News of the shootings played 24-7 on TV. Of course, it’s natural to be anxious about a sniper on a highway after 11 cars were shot at and damaged in the early morning commuting hours on Interstate 10. But the narrative was typically exaggerated, with confirmation from the government that residents “should be concerned.” Over-heated coverage highlighted the lack of safety and the need for armed civilian vigilantes to respond. The common perception among the public was that normal folks, conducting normal activities, were not safe anywhere. And yet no one was killed and the suspect is now in custody in Phoenix. Like many potentially violent scenarios, it is likely that his motivation was depressingly prosaic: boredom, access to guns, a lack of satisfaction with his station in life, mental illness, substance abuse, or a history of trauma.

This disconnect between fear and reality perpetuates bad policy. America is becoming increasingly safe, and cities are leading the way. A little, but not much, of the old violence is leaking into new suburbs, and even for those geographies, there are solutions. But they are solutions to chronic problems, not new ones, like domestic violence, substance abuse, and anti-social behaviors in school.

Perhaps the key to neighborhood policing is to eliminate disruption whenever possible. As sociologist Robert J. Sampson argues, incarceration leads to “poverty traps” in which black males are imprisoned and removed from their homes, disrupting their families and communities, and perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage. Instead of being terrified by random incidents of violence, we should instead remain focused on breaking this vicious cycle and making our neighborhoods and communities safer for the long-term.

But in order to bring about any sort of effective change, it’s necessary to align our perceptions with reality. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” As Americans, it’s time we get the facts straight.

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