In a previous post, I discussed the big difference between Americans’ perception of crime and the reality of it. Overall, crime is down, way down, in America from where it was 25 years ago.
However, crime rates vary tremendously from place to place. And it’s instructive, I think, to note the places that have high crime rates – and perhaps even more instructive to note the places that don’t.
I suspect that few people think of Stockton, California, when they think of crime. But in fact it has a very high violent crime rate, much higher than that of New York city or Chicago. How about Kansas City, Missouri? Again, very high crime rate, much higher than New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Los Angeles, in fact, ranks pretty low – much lower than say, Buffalo, New York, or Oklahoma City.
Here is a list of American cities with more than 500,000 people, and their violent crime rates, according to FBI statistics. The numbers are violent crimes per year per 100,000 people.
Detroit, MI 1759.6 1
Memphis, TN 1740.1 2
Milwaukee, WI 1596.1 3
Baltimore, MD 1535.9 4
Indianapolis, IN 1288.0 5
Washington, DC 1202.6 6
Nashville metropolitan 1101.0 7
Philadelphia, PA 1029.0 8
Miami, FL 1021.3 9
Houston, TX 966.7 10
Albuquerque, NM 965.8 11
Las Vegas, NV 920.7 12
Chicago, IL 903.8 13
San Francisco, CA 776.8 14
Oklahoma City, OK 765.6 15
Boston, MA 706.8 16
Dallas, TX 694.2 17
Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC 677.6 18
Denver, CO 673.9 19
Tucson, AZ 655.5 20
Jacksonville, FL 648.3 21
Los Angeles, CA 634.8 22
Louisville Metro, KY 631.8 23
Seattle, WA 598.7 24
Phoenix, AZ 593.8 25
San Antonio, TX 587.2 26
New York, NY 585.8 27
Fresno, CA 551.2 28
Columbus, OH 546.3 29
Fort Worth, TX 525.4 30
Portland, OR 472.8 31
San Diego, CA 398.6 32
Austin, TX 372.5 33
El Paso, TX 366.6 34
San Jose, CA 329.6 35
Honolulu, HI 243.9 36
Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York are undoubtedly associated with crime in the public mind. Yet Nashville? Nashville’s violent crime rate is 22% higher than that of Chicago, and almost double that of New York. How about Oklahoma City? Its violent crime rate is 21% higher than that of Los Angeles, and 31% higher than that of New York.
If you had to guess, how would you rate violent crime in these cities?
Raleigh, North Carolina
How did you do? Here are the answers. Laredo and Raleigh have relatively low violent crime rates. Laredo – 379.3; Raleigh – 392.3. Orlando, Tulsa, and Wichita have high rates. Orlando – 940.6; Tulsa – 903.6; Wichita – 984.8. For some reason, Americans have the notion that the midsection of the country is relatively crime free. In fact, cities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Kansas City have high violent crime rates, much higher than those of New York or Los Angeles.
Even more surprising is the relationship between city size and violent crime rate – or I should say, the lack of relationship. This would seem to be a no-brainer – when you pack more people together, there is more opportunity for crime. Yet when we plot city size versus violent crime rate for 83 large American cities, we get this:
There is virtually no relationship! New York City, with a population of more than 8 million, has a modest violent crime rate. Stockton, California, with a population less than 5 PERCENT that of New York, has well over DOUBLE its violent crime rate.
Several other relatively small cities are notable for their high violent crime rates. Anchorage, Alaska. Buffalo, New York. Kansas City, Missouri. Toledo, Ohio. And some very large American cities are notable for their modest crime rates. Austin, Texas. El Paso, Texas. Honolulu, Hawaii. San Jose, California.
How about states? Well, again, perception and reality are 2 different things. New York ranks 19th in violent crime rate. Illinois (where that notorious city called Chicago is) ranks 21st. Number 1 on the list is Alaska, which sports a violent crime rate almost double that of New York. Nevada is a close 2nd. And Tennessee is 3rd. At the bottom of the list is Vermont, which has a violent crime rate about ONE-SIXTH of Alaska’s. Second from the bottom is Maine. Of the top 10 states, 5 are in the South. Of the bottom 10 states, 4 are in the Northeast.
What correlates with this state-by-state variation in violent crime? Well, let’s try median household income:
Surprisingly, there seems to be little correlation between median income and violent crime rates. New Hampshire, with a very high median household income, has a low violent crime rate. But Alaska also has a high median household income – yet it has a very high violent crime rate.
What about income inequality? That might work better. If some people are doing well, and others poorly, we might expect that this would lead to higher crime rates. Let’s take a look:
There’s not much to work with here either. There’s a suggestion of a relationship, but lots of spread, and some striking outliers. Alaska has low income inequality yet high crime. Connecticut has high income inequality yet low crime.
How about education?
This is somewhat better. There does seem to be a negative relationship between educational attainment by state and violent crime rate. But there is still a lot of spread.
My point is that crime is complex. Education is a factor, but multiple factors contribute. Why does Tucson, Arizona have a higher violent crime rate than much larger Phoenix, right down the road? Why does El Paso, Texas have a much lower crime rate than San Antonio or Fort Worth? The answers are undoubtedly complex.
Why does so much media attention seem to focus on cities like Los Angeles and New York when it comes to crime? I think a big part of the reason is simply that they focus on EVERYTHING in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. What’s happening in Kansas City or Anchorage or Tucson just doesn’t get much of their attention, unless it’s an obvious hate crime or some other sensational tidbit.
The media is about narratives, narratives that can be communicated in a straightforward way. The complexities of crime do not lend themselves to straightforward narratives. Understanding crime requires depth and time. It’s much easier to create a simple narrative. The crumbling inner city slum. Gangs that are out of control. The decline of the traditional family. And the most popular narrative of all is “crime is out of control.” It’s a lie. But it sells. If it bleeds, it leads.