Our Neighbor’s Crimes: Neither Senseless Nor Random

(Mis)perceptions

Our individual and collective understanding of crime and the American justice system is powerfully framed by popular culture. While reality-television, courtroom drama, and documentaries contribute to our knowledge and perceptions of personal safety, security, and criminal justice, it is specifically our increasingly voracious consumption of remarkably crafted crime drama television that catalyzes our (mis)perceptions of such behaviors and systems. Study ratings for whodunit programs, including Law and Order, Bones, Criminal Minds, The Mentalist, and many more, and it is obvious that we enjoy watching cops, lawyers, geeks, and squints hard at work; solving every homicide with totally unreasonable speed, after using techniques seemingly devoid of reality or time and institution or fiduciary resources, with few scientific limitations, and often single-handedly prosecuting each spectacular mystery with record-breaking haste, often in front of a polished, trusting, objective, educated, and attentive jury.

These viewers “are more likely to overestimate the frequency of serious crimes, misperceive important facts about crime and misjudge the number of workers in the judicial system.” (Amy Patterson Neubert, Glenn Sparks, and Susan Huelsing Sarapin)

The market has a distorted criminal justice salience, which not only disrupts our personal perceptions of safety and security but also affects the quality of our relationships or encounters with law enforcement, the courts, and even science. As popular culture and our most common forms of entertainment paint a twisted picture, it is also true that examining criminality is not something natural or familiar to most of us.

Why Study This?

Consider the last time you passed by a terrible car accident. Most of us look and wonder which car was going which direction or how that car ended up all the way over there. Sometimes, people pause a moment and say a prayer or wish well upon all the people tangled up in the mess. Occasionally, but especially when faced with vivid images of injury and pain, we grimace. Do we flinch at the thought that those dealing with the trauma after the wreck could have been a loved one or even ourselves? Don’t we recognize a familiar agony but then sigh in relief at the realization that a family member or friend isn’t dead or that we aren’t seriously injured, or that our vehicle was involved? We cannot help but see that other people, those people, are dealing with what happens after a vehicle violently collides with another vehicle, object, or person.

Observing and interpreting the disarray of an event should not be equivocated with onlookers gaining some voyeuristic pleasure as we pass by. Instead, isn’t this act similar to academic learning, with the now-familiar process of witnessing what is happening (sights, sounds, smells, feelings) and then applying those observations to our own physical, mental, and intellectual realities?

Short of upending our professional paths or careers regardless of industry, one way to introduce a dose of reality into our understanding of crime and criminal justice could be to review the actual crimes. Because “murder is the single most common crime on television,” perhaps we should study homicides with the same approach that we apply to the examination of any topic in history (and not the high-school-exam-type where many of us thought it was cute to just memorize names, dates, places, and events). It is here on this website that you can explore over 1,800 events to better understand crime, history, and society.


1. Neubert, Amy Patterson, Glenn Sparks, and Susan Huelsing Sarapin. Researchers rest their case: TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system. Purdue Department of Communication and Purdue News Service, October 28, 2009. https://www.purdue.edu/uns/x/2009b/091028SparksCrime.html.