The article below appeared as an op-ed in the Sunday, June 5, 2011 New Haven Register, but it is applicable to cities throughout Connecticut and the United States. Please check this page for additional footnotes and detail on data sources.
New Haven crime real, danger ranking is not
The Register and other media recently highlighted a “Most Dangerous Cities” ranking the 24/7 Wall Street blog compiled simply by dividing the total number of reported crimes by estimated residential population in each municipality. Contrary to many reports, this is not an FBI ranking and it is not accurate.
Respected research organizations such as Brookings, the Urban Institute, and the Harvard School of Public Health have developed “best practices” for comparing U.S. cities on the basis of public safety. 24/7 Wall Street ignores them all. To evaluate risks in different cities, the public should consider several factors. First, it is possible to compare blocks, neighborhoods, and standard geographical areas, but not municipalities. Municipalities have vastly different land areas, based on which areas they have annexed over time. 24/7 Wall Street’s ratings equate New Haven and its 18 square miles with Atlanta and its 132 square miles or Jacksonville and its 767 square miles.
Two municipalities with identical populations– New Haven and Waco, TX – have land areas of 18 square miles and 85 square miles, respectively.
As a municipality, New Haven is highly unusual: despite being home to 80,000 jobs, it is so small in land area that most of its working residents are employed in other towns, and vice versa. When comparing places, good researchers define a city not as a municipality, but as the “place” where, by standard methodology, the majority of people live, work and shop. This can be done by neighborhood, by commuting radius, or by employment area, allowing researchers to standardize comparisons.
A 2010-2011 ranking of the 350 largest comparable U.S. urban areas by CQ Press, using audited FBI statistics, is one example. Places such as Detroit, Flint, Baltimore and Memphis remain near the top of the list, while New Haven is ranked at 168 on the danger scale, similar to Salt Lake City, Boston, Honolulu, and Eugene, Oregon.
Also note that despite using 2010 crime statistics, 24/7 Wall Street uses population estimates based on the 2000 Census instead of the current, 2010 data for population released months ago by the Census Bureau. New Haven grew by 5% since 2000, adding more population than any other place in Connecticut. Most of the other “dangerous” cities on 24/7 Wall Street’s list, like Oakland, lost significant population since 2000.
Furthermore, calculations of crime rate should adjust for the fact that in some cities, the daytime and visitor population is far larger than the resident population. Unlike many communities, New Haven has a “net” population gain of 28,000 people because so many residents of surrounding towns travel to New Haven to work. Most surrounding towns lose significant population during the day. Even a city like Bridgeport loses 9,000 residents. As a major retail, education, healthcare and entertainment hub, New Haven gains further tens of thousands of visitors daily. Calculating crime incidence using only residential population does not accurately measure risk nor is it an accurate way to compare municipalities.
There are no “typical” citizens within a city. As detailed by a 2011 New Haven Health Department report on community safety, the likelihood of being a crime victim varies dramatically by age, demographic group and access to safe housing, education, jobs and transportation. As a result, crime incidents within New Haven neighborhoods vary, and many are at or above the levels of safety elsewhere in Connecticut and the nation. Recent surveys show the variability in health and safety within neighborhoods. In some areas, residents are satisfied with access to parks and youth programs, in others, they are not. In some, the majority of respondents said they felt safe walking outside at night, while in others they did not.
Creating an equal sense of opportunity among all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status or neighborhood, is key to further crime reduction. While we must never downplay violent incidents within our communities, good decision making requires access to accurate data and analysis based on real comparables. Rather than allowing online blogs to dominate public discourse with inaccurate information and comparisons, greater New Haven should adopt a crime tracking system such as San Francisco Crime Spotting. Being more open about crime data within our towns will help improve everyone’s understanding of risk and the ways to reduce violence, and target interventions where they are most needed. Most of our neighborhoods are already safe and healthy places to live and New Haven and surrounding towns are making visible progress. Good data helps keep that progress going.
Mark Abraham Executive Director, DataHaven, 129 Church Street, New Haven, CT Mr. Abraham can be reached at info (at) ctdatahaven.org.
Additional information: In 2007, the executive board of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) approved a resolution firmly opposing the development of city crime rankings from FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCRs), calling them “invalid.” Michael Tonry, Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota and ASC’s President at the time of the resolution, said, "These rankings represent an irresponsible misuse of the data and do groundless harm to many communities. They also work against a key goal of our society, which is a better understanding of crime-related issues by both scientists and the public." Barbara Tinney, Executive Director of the New Haven Family Alliance, a New Haven-based nonprofit organization, agreed that inaccurate information can cause within a community like New Haven. “New Haven, like most cities, is faced with the challenge of responding to the complex social problem of community violence,” she said. “But faulty data compilations, like the ‘most dangerous cities’ ranking that the 24/7 wall street blog released, misinform the public, do the cities cited in this report an injustice, and only serve to sensationalize what should be treated as one of our Nation’s most pressing public health concerns.” To illustrate this piece further, Abraham shared a comparison of crime rates and population among New Haven and several other cities. He pointed to the cities of Wichita, Kansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma, which did not appear on 24/7’s list of “Most Dangerous Cities.” Tulsa and Wichita incorporate a geographical land area 10 times larger than the municipal boundary of New Haven. When one holds land area constant, and matches the comparable New Haven area to those of Wichita and Tulsa, the population density and employment characteristics of the three cities is nearly identical. In this true comparison of where people live and work, noted Abraham, Tulsa, Wichita, and New Haven have an equivalent population of just under 400,000, and New Haven has the lowest crime rate by a significant margin.