Monday, September 11, 2006

Comparing Crime

Recently, the FBI released preliminary numbers from its 2005 Uniform Crime Reporting Program. According to the findings, violent crime in the U.S. rose 2.5 percent between 2004 and 2005. The complete report will be released later this year, entitled Crime in the United States, with tables of data on crimes reported to nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation. But don't plan on using the report to determine how your local area ranks in the crime statistics. Those who want to compare one area with another are on their own.

The FBI makes no secret of the fact that they do not want users to compare crime rates. They even write extensively about the difficulty of doing so on their web site:

"Each year when Crime in the United States is published, many entities—news media, tourism agencies, and other groups with an interest in crime in our Nation—use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents"

But you have to wonder whether this high-mindedness is more political than methodological. After all, if the FBI provided rankings of states and local areas by crime rate, then those 17,000 law enforcement agencies might not be so cooperative about sending their data to the FBI. And more than 400 congressional representatives, 100 senators, and countless local politicians would be very unhappy if their area appeared at the top of a high-crime list.

Unless an intrepid reporter burrows into the numbers by downloading, multiplying, dividing, and sorting, the average American is left pretty much in the dark about relative crime rates in the U.S. Everyone knows the central cities of metropolitan areas have high crime rates, but what about college towns, vacation spots, and retirement areas? The federal government makes it hard to find out.

Recently, crime seems to have surged in my town, Beaufort, South Carolina—a military base and resort area on the coast. Letters in the local newspaper have expressed shock at the crime, wondering what is happening to our once safe community. But how safe is Beaufort, relatively speaking? I wanted to find out. Because the 2005 data are not yet available, I went to the FBI's 2004 report, finding a table listing crime rates by region and state. I was not surprised to see the South having the highest rate of violent crime—this is a well documented fact. By region, the violent crime rate per 100,000 population looks like this:

U.S. average 465.5
South 540.6
West 480.7
Midwest 391.1
Northeast 390.7

Next, I spent about 15 minutes sorting the 50 states by their violent crime rate. To my surprise, supposedly sleepy South Carolina came out on top, with 784.2 violent crimes per 100,000 population in 2004. The violent crime rate in South Carolina exceeds the rate in every other state, including those with high-crime reputations such as Florida (711.3), Nevada (615.9), Texas (540.5), and New York (441.6).

But what about Beaufort? Another table has the data, listing each city's population and the number of violent crimes reported in 2004. The rate has to be calculated, then the list sorted. Lo and behold, Beaufort's violent crime rate of 1,660.3 places it 7th out of 33 cities in the state with populations of 10,000 or more. Beaufort, in fact, has a higher crime rate than the central cities of the state's largest metropolitan areas—Columbia and Charleston. Beaufort has a lower crime rate, however, than the state's other resort area, Myrtle Beach.

While it is understandable that local businesses and politicians may not want these facts to be released, keeping residents in the dark about their chances of experiencing violent crime is a disservice to the community. That kind of naiveté not only increases risk taking, but also adds more victims to the crime rolls.

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