On May 24 last year, 54-year-old Blessie Gotingco got off a bus in Birkdale on Auckland's North Shore and started a short walk home. Other than working late, it was a normal day until she was hit by a car, raped and killed before her body was dumped in scrub at Eskdale Cemetery.
In the public mind, killings like this confirm the troubling notion of a violent society becoming more violent. But it isn't. In fact, it's getting considerably safer.
Murder is an interesting measure for social scientists. It is less encumbered by the vagaries affecting other crime data: it is almost always reported and it is generally unaffected by changes in policing or public emphasis, meaning that murder statistics offer a reliable foundation upon which one can build sound conclusions.
One such conclusion is this: you are significantly less likely to be murdered now than in any of the last three decades. One has to go back to when Norman Kirk was in office in 1973 to find the beginning of a five-year period to rival the one we are in. Many people won't believe that. Most New Zealanders think violent crime is on the rise. A 2013 Department of Justice study found 9 per cent of people correctly thought violent crime was decreasing. That leaves an alarming number of misinformed people, and it's easy to understand why.
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Dancing to the easy tune of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, whose membership's admirable intent is dwarfed by a distinct lack of intellectual curiosity, successive governments, assisted by an often-lazy media, have sought electoral advantage through a "tough on crime" rhetoric and in doing so have created public perceptions of a soaring crime problem.
Amid rapid urbanisation, murder rates climbed in the late 1950s before taking off in the late 1970s, and peaking in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 10 years beginning in 1985 there were 624 murders but during the last 10 years there were fewer than 500. The raw numbers ignore one transformative element: population growth. Let's take the first term of Jim Bolger's 1990 government when there were 188 murders within an average population of around 3.3 million, and compare it to the John Key government's last term when there were 132 among 4.5 million. During the Bolger period, New Zealanders lived with 1.95 murders per 100,000 people, while more recently experiencing 0.97.
Blessie Gotingco's dreadful end is many things, but a reflection of an increasingly violent society it is not. Furthermore, women are many more times likely to be killed by a loved one than by a stranger.
None of this will comfort Blessie's loved ones and nor should it inhibit our outrage at violent crime. It is important, however, that we gain our perspectives from research and rationality. Murder is no small matter but neither is how we live our lives. Overblown fears of violent crime will inhibit our enjoyment of the world and invariably feed policies that create more, not fewer, victims.
Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist and author of Patched: the History of Gangs in New Zealand.