In the last few months, the Taiwanese public has seen a number of fatal crimes, including a random stabbing by a man in Taipei’s Shilin District known to be an avid reader of violent comic books, a stray bullet killing a newly married man in Sinjhuang (新莊) and a cyclist in Taipei County’s Shenkeng Township (深坑) who was fatally shot in the neck by an arrow.
Members of the public who are shocked by these cases also find themselves perplexed by a key element in these crimes — the randomness of the acts. The victims had no direct relations with their attackers and seem to have been randomly selected from a vast population of ordinary people, much like a bloody version of winning the lottery, in which the prize is not cash, but brutal deaths.
A question seems to linger on many people’s mind: Do we find ourselves in a period of relatively high crime rates and must we fear for our safety whenever we leave home?
Huang Fu-yuan (黃富源), a specialist in criminology who serves on the committee of the Criminal Investigation Bureau’s Crime Prevention Center, disagrees with that view.
“There has not been a dramatic increase in the number of crimes occurring in the country,” he said. “But in the mass media environment, cases that are special and different from what we usually see receive a lot of coverage, so people fear for their safety when they see the reports.”
A survey of 2,000 families conducted in January by the director of National Chung Cheng University’s department of criminology, Yang Shu-lung (楊士隆), and his associates showed that most families nationwide were rather apprehensive about the state of public safety.
A majority of surveyed families expressed concern about neighborhood crime, with 45 percent saying they found their neighborhoods were “not very safe” and 24.3 percent saying they were “very dangerous.”
Asked about nighttime safety, 52.6 percent said they were “a little worried,” while 8.3 percent said they were “very worried.” Only 8.6 percent said they were “not worried at all.”
As many as 20 percent said they were “very worried” and 38.6 percent said they were “a little worried” about being injured or harmed in a crime.
Yang said the survey showed the country’s judicial and law enforcement systems had not succeeded in winning public confidence and that this could cause law-abiding citizens to raise doubts or even lower their willingness to obey the laws governing criminal cases.
Despite widespread concern about public safety, official records show that crime rates have been falling.
The latest statistics released by the Ministry of the Interior showed that from January to May, police handled 107 armed crime cases, a 16.4 percent decrease from the same period last year. The number of murder cases (42) and armed robbery (39) also fell.
“What the numbers tell us objectively is different from what people feel subjectively,” said Hsieh Wen-yan (謝文彥), an associate professor of criminology at the Central Police University. “It is not easy for people to obtain correct information about crimes. When they see media reports of murders and that innocent people get randomly killed for no apparent reason, it makes them panic and fear that anybody could be the victim of a violent crime.”
Officials play too many numbers games to try to convince the public that it is doing a good job of fighting crime, he said. At the same time, we see random killings in our community; it makes even academics suspicious of government’s statistics, he said.
Hsieh reminded the public that numbers do not tell everything. Statistical bias may occur when administrative policies makes a certain type of crime a priority.
If, for example, the government lists drug prevention as a high priority, he said, we will see a rise in the number of drug-related crimes. Although drug crimes may not have actually increased, the more resources we dedicate to monitoring such crimes, the more crimes we catch that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.
“When certain forms of crimes are labeled as very important to a police officer’s performance record, police will be more diligent when it comes to preventing such crimes, so we will naturally see an increase in such cases,” he said.
Yang agreed that rising unemployment could lead to a rise in the number of thefts or other crimes by individuals facing financial difficulties.
Huang said that although the economy directly influences our lives, the public cannot blame everything on Wall Street.
“The social element is what worries me,” he said. “There is a saying: ‘Poor married couples have many worries.’ Although the recession poses a financial burden on families, if we don’t know how to solve problems that plague our interpersonal relationships, they may end in conflicts or tragedy, especially when violence is involved.”
Huang said that when families or individuals that have experienced some affluence are affected by an economic downturn, they may find themselves in relative deprivation, or even become frustrated at not being able to buy what they used to afford. When people lack the interpersonal skills to cope with pressure that may have originated from financial burdens, they might act out and resort to aggression, harming those close to them or even an unlucky stranger who happened to be passing by.
To get to the root of the problem, people must emphasize the importance of handling negative emotions, Huang said.
Cases such as random killings occur when criminals cannot find a peaceful way to resolve their negative emotions, so they randomly select their victims to take out their anger, he said, adding that such cases occur very rarely and are not something the public should lose sleep over.
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