In a summer of mass shootings nationally and frightening street violence locally, a reporter seeks a New Orleans-schooled expert on the fear of crime.
She is Heidi Unter, Ph.D., business owner, criminal justice researcher and former executive director of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation
Inc. (NOP&JF)

“Fear changes our thinking – it’s a scientific fact,” Unter says of her political science dissertation at the University of New Orleans. “Biologically, to feel afraid is to have one’s heart pound, one’s hair stand on end and one’s breathing become rapid, all of which most people have experienced in such incidents as near misses in a car, unexpected noises or criminal attacks,” Unter wrote in her unpublished study, completed in May 2001.

A native of Galliano, Unter finished her dissertation at age 25. “She finished in record time,” Susan E. Howell, a political scientist and pollster who directed Unter’s research, says.

Her fear of crime study included a poll of 2,000 residents in four major cities: Detroit, Chicago, Charlotte and New Orleans. Topics included race and racism, and evaluation of police performance in the cities surveyed.

“Fear changes our thinking in that we try to avoid instances where we become more fearful,” Unter says. “We get guns, we get dogs, build higher walls and avoid people who don’t look like ourselves.”

Insulating yourself only exacerbates the fear of crime.

Some may flee their city. Others may “withdraw from community affairs.” Fear of crime also contributes to social isolation, especially among women and the elderly.

“Fear can also cause individuals to think irrationally,” her study states. “Perhaps the most serious finding in this area is the tendency of fear of crime to exacerbate stereotypes, especially those of a racial nature.”

Other consequences of a crime-shaken public include increased calls for harsher penalties, such as mandatory minimum prison sentences.
“High levels of fear among the public reflect poorly on national and local governments,” she wrote.

Unter says the most powerful factors in her study of the fear of crime were “media exposure and racial factors.”

When the public says they’re afraid of crime, police brass often trot out crime statistics to show the city is safer than portrayed in news media reports – with little effect on public fears.

Since 2001, an explosion of social media has increased the reporting of crime news.

“It’s not just the 6 o’clock news anymore. Now it’s 24/7 and you never get a break from it. You hear it again and again and it affects your level of fear. It’s not always accurate, but it’s increasing our exposure (to crime).”

What can people do to reduce their fears of crime?

“The more you have social connections, the less intimidating it is to go outside.”

Unexpectedly, she adds: “The same goes for police.”

Police can insulate themselves from the public just as easily as citizens, she says.

So how do police and city leaders reduce our fear of crime?

“You can’t just focus on reducing crime.” She advocates “community policing,” a constant proactive interaction between police and citizens to improve the quality of life in New Orleans neighborhoods and to pre-empt violence.

“Unfortunately, ‘community policing’ is manpower intensive,” she says. “It requires taking an officer out of his car responding to calls for service and placing him in community meetings and schools. When the police brass feels they’re low on manpower, implementation of community policing department-wide may be viewed as a luxury that they cannot afford.”

Unter’s view of NOPD’s quest for more cops is reminiscent of the city Inspector General’s alternative recommendation for better management of police resources.

“I think that this crisis-level “we need more cops on the street” song and dance that they (NOPD) put us through every couple of years when crime rises alarmingly is tiresome and a way they deflect the blame for not getting a handle on the problem,” Unter says. “In today’s era of strategic policing, you should be able to do more with less boots.”

Another Powerful Emotion
Unter led the nonprofit Police Foundation’s efforts to help rebuild and improve the local criminal justice system post-Katrina.

She developed a housing plan for the city’s first responders as she mourned the loss of her Lakeview dream home. “Ten feet of water,” she says. “The ceilings were only 8 feet high.”

She directed a federally funded effort to create a modern technology “footprint” for the criminal justice system.

She and the NOP&JF forged a working protocol between the estranged administrations of NOPD Chief Warren Riley and Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. amid a public uproar over the controversial “701” jail releases of violent crime suspects.

Unter left the NOP&JF and New Orleans in 2009.

The fear of crime expert attributes her departure to another powerful emotion: love.

“I met a man, fell in love, left my career, sold my home, disconnected my cell phone and moved onto a sailboat in the Caribbean.” They sailed for four years, visiting “all the islands from the Bahamas to Grenada.”

Unter met businessman/sailor Ed Mikkelsen on a blind date at Port of Call, arranged by friend Jill Hayes, Ph.D., a forensic clinical psychologist who has interviewed hundreds of incarcerated criminal defendants –including serial killers. Hayes says she met Mikkelsen on a flight and persuaded Unter to go on a blind date the next day. “I’m a good judge of character,” Hayes says. “I checked him out to make sure.”

Mikkelsen, who played football for Tulane in the 1970s, and Unter returned to New Orleans in 2013. They have been together for eight years. He owns several oil-change franchises in New England. She recently started an oil change shop in Metairie. They divide their time between homes here and in Newport, Rhode Island.

Unter is considering returning to criminal justice work in New Orleans.