By JASON BOOTH
Crime may be down, but that fact seems to have escaped the notice of the public at large, which is spending record sums on security products and services.
The private security industry has exploded in recent years, generating some $100 billion in annual revenues nationwide, up from $20 billion in 1980. In addition to spending more than ever on security guards, alarm systems and closed-circuit TVs, Angelenos are increasingly fleeing to the perceived sanctuary of gated communities.
"If we were living in a rational world, we would modify our behaviors to reflect the lower crime numbers," said USC sociology professor Barry Glassner. "But this is not a rational world."
Many experts blame the media most especially local TV news for the exaggerated level of security consciousness.
"Los Angeles tends to be relatively safe for most people, but the nightly news takes what are relatively unusual events and strings them together, making Los Angeles look like downtown Beirut," said James Grayson, a former law enforcement officer who is a consultant to UCLA's Southern California Injury Prevention Center.
Sometimes adding to the negative perception are security companies that employ fear-inducing ads. Among the more notable campaigns is an ad for Brinks home alarms that shows a young mother under threat from an intruder and an ad for "The Club" that shows a thief using a baseball bat to break into a car.
"There are way too many organizations that are promoting the fear of crime," said Glassner. "As a result, the fear of crime has not declined as much as the level of crime."
Security-industry executives maintain that while serious crime is down overall, the types of crimes that most affect businesses remain high. Indeed, workplace violence currently tops the list of security concerns, according to a recent survey conducted by the industry trade group American Society for Industrial Security.
While keeping employees and customers safe seems to be the primary reason that companies buy security products and services, another is psychological.
Such is the case at Megatoys, which is based near Skid Row east of downtown. "The perception is that downtown has a crime problem, so we need to give employees and customers a sense of security no matter what the statistics say," said Charles Woo, Megatoys' chief executive.
Another example of Angelenos' perceived need for security: gated communities.
More than 60 percent of the new housing projects that are currently being marketed in the Los Angeles area are gated, according to the Meyers Group, a housing research firm. Being inside a gated community can add anywhere from 5 percent to 10 percent to a property's value.
Real estate experts say two factors contribute to the growing popularity of these enclaves a latent fear of crime fueled by the media's fascination with murder and mayhem, and old-fashioned snobbery.
Ironically, the suburban areas where most of these gated communities are being built already have low crime rates, and any serious burglar would have little difficulty getting past the security posts, which are typically manned by workers making less than $10 an hour to monitor incoming traffic.
Nowhere is the gated-community phenomenon more evident than in Calabasas, where no fewer than eight gated enclaves exist.
Brian Nairin moved to one in 1996. As owner of Pasadena bail bond company Associated Bond and Insurance Agency, Nairin has a better sense of the current crime situation than most L.A. residents. And while he doubts that crime is down as much as the statistics indicate, his decision to move into the area was based more on a desire to put his children into the local schools than to escape the threat of crime.
But after three years, he says that given a choice between gated and non-gated, he'd probably prefer to stay where he is.
"The gate creates a natural enclosure for the kids. When they ride their bikes, their limits are set by the gate," said Nairin. "And when I'm out of town, it is nice to know that my family is safe."
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