Reuters

Lists of the most dangerous cities don't actually tell us anything about those cities

This week, CQ Press released its annual City Crime Rankings, which purports to identify the most dangerous cities in America. Though the rankings received plenty of attention, especially in the cities that top the list—Flint, Michigan; Camden, New Jersey; and Detroit this year—they're misleading, unfairly damaging and unworthy of any attention at all.

Don’t take my word for it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose statistics the rankings are based on, says such rankings "lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents."

The American Society of Criminology calls them "invalid, damaging, and irresponsible…City crime rankings make no one safer, but they can harm the cities they tarnish and divert attention from the individual and community characteristics that elevate crime in all cities." Last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors denounced the publication as "a premeditated statistical mugging of America‘s cities."

What exactly is wrong with City Crime Rankings? "Where does one begin?" asks criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, a longtime critic of the publication. "The fundamental problem with the rankings is that they are supposed to inform individuals about their chances of becoming victims of crime, yet they tell you almost nothing about a person’s risk for crime. A person’s age, gender, their activities—all those help tell you a person’s risk for crime."

Comparing crime within cities is vastly more useful than comparing crime between cities, Rosenfeld adds. Data on crime patterns within a city’s boundaries help police and public officials decide where to concentrate resources, "but whether a person lives in Billings, Montana, or Baltimore, Maryland, tells you nothing," he says.

The rankings also fail to account for the different configurations of American cities, what criminologists call the denominator problem. For instance, St. Louis, which topped the list in 2010, has much of its crime concentrated in inner-city neighborhoods, as do cities like Indianapolis, Louisville, and Memphis. But these cities have either annexed or merged with many surrounding, safer communities and are physically several times larger than the city of St. Louis; as a result they have significantly diluted crime rates within their city borders. Camden, New Jersey, which took second place last year as well, fell to the 225th most dangerous in 2010 when metro areas were considered.

The publisher takes information from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, repackages it and sells the volume, largely to libraries, for $75. Morgan Quitno, a small publisher in Lawrence, Kansas, launched the rankings in 1995; CQ Press, which publishes Congressional Quarterly, bought Morgan Quitno in 2007 and retained the crime rankings as a product.

CQ publisher John Jenkins defends the publication as a journalistic endeavor that helps Americans understand a basic attribute of the cities they live in. "We agree, of course, that crime-ranking information contains many variables and that all must be considered carefully," Jenkins wrote in a statement. "But as journalists, we take very seriously our responsibility to keep Americans informed -- even if the news is not good. So we publish such data, even if it causes cities and officials to feel aggrieved."

Policy wonks can fret all day about the bogus methodology, but the rankings are irresistible to news outlets, summing up a complex web of crime’s causes and effects into one easy headline. Officials of the "safest" cities - which this year includes Fishers, Indiana; O’Fallon, Missouri; and Mission Viejo, California - promote the findings in press releases and marketing materials, while those at the top of the crime rankings brace themselves for the onslaught of negative attention. "In the world of economic development, perception drives reality," says Dick Fleming, CEO of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, where refuting the annual publication is a well-rehearsed drill.  "What we bristle at is the intellectually dishonest way in which they choose to convey this information. When the FBI, the source of this data, has a warning on their website about it, it is absolutely irresponsible to publish it."

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