White residents in NJ more likely to say neighborhood crime is getting worse, poll finds

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By Dan Sears

As major cities around New Jersey and the country report sharp drops in their crime numbers, a new poll finds that New Jerseyans’ perceptions of crime in their neighborhoods differs substantially based on race.

According a Rutgers University poll released on Tuesday, 15% of Black residents say crime has worsened where they live over the last five years, compared to 31% of white residents. At the same time, 20% of Black people say crime has gotten better in their neighborhoods, but just 6% of white residents say the same. Most of both groups — about 62% of white people and 60% of Black people — said things had stayed the same.

Hispanic residents were the least likely — 47% — to say things had stayed the same. Of Hispanic residents polled, 16% thought crime was getting better in their neighborhoods, but 34% thought it was getting worse.

“This is what they perceive things to be, which sometimes doesn’t always jive with reality,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She said the poll results haven’t been compared to the crime rates of where the respondents live.

The researchers also observed a significant divide based on political partisanship. The poll found that 42% of Republicans say crime in their neighborhoods has worsened, while 62% of Democrats say it has stayed the same.

More Republicans also said they worried about being the victims of crime – 52% of Republican respondents — compared to independents (41%) and Democrats (32%).

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Koning said the center found it “unsurprising” that more Republicans said crime has gotten worse, given the partisan political rhetoric of the moment.

“This really plays into those more national level politics issues of law and order that we’ve seen so prevalent in recent election cycles,” she said.

The results of the poll arrive as cities in New Jersey and around the country that were hit by crime spikes during the COVID-19 pandemic attempt to drive crime back down — and are seeing some success based on the numbers.

At the end of last year, several New Jersey cities that have historically struggled with high crime rates touted drops in those numbers. In Newark, the mayor’s office announced in December that violent crime was down 10% for 2023. That included an 8% drop in murders, which gave the city its lowest homicide rate in 60 years. Newark is largely Black and Latino, and has the state’s largest majority of Democrats over Republicans.

In Paterson — where city officials are facing a twofold problem of high crime numbers coupled with a crisis of public confidence in a scandal-ridden police departmentshootings were down 33% overall and homicides also dropped 39% in 2023, according to the police department. This drop occurred as Paterson’s police department underwent a takeover by the state’s attorney general’s office starting in March. But Mayor Andre Sayegh, who is suing the AG’s office over the takeover, said that crime rates were going down in Paterson prior to the takeover.

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“Prior to the state takeover. So we’re talking about the first three months of 2023. We saw a 66% reduction in homicides and a 30% reduction in overall shootings … So we were already driving down crime significantly in the city of Paterson,” Sayegh said.

Paterson is a majority-Latino area, where about a quarter of residents are Black. Just about 18% of residents are identified as “white alone” in the latest U.S. Census. In Paterson, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 2-1.

Sayegh said he attributes Paterson’s drop in crime to a “holistic” approach to public safety. He highlighted programs launched by city officials, including a re-entry program to help offenders coming out of incarceration, programs where the city has worked with residents to fix their credit, and a guaranteed income initiative that provides several hundred Paterson residents with $400 a month.

Koning pointed out that while the lowering of crime rates in major New Jersey towns and cities is certainly a positive, the mixed opinions shown in the Rutgers polls show that the crime numbers may not coalesce with people’s feeling about their communities.

“We know even on issues like the economy, often the numbers we see don’t necessarily match up with people’s perceptions of the economy. Crime and safety are similar issues where we may see kind of either a disconnect or maybe a lagged effect where residents aren’t yet seeing the positivity of those drops in crime,” she said.

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In general, the Rutgers research found that those polled in New Jersey had a positive view of the particular places where they live. According to the poll, about 7 in 10 New Jerseyans say their town or city is either an “excellent” or “good” place to live. However, Black and Hispanic residents were about 20 percentage points less likely than white residents to rate their towns as excellent or good.

For the poll, the researchers contacted more than 1,600 adults via call, text and email over the course of 10 days in December 2023.

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