Monday, November 19, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and Crime Rankings

Both Daily Bellwether and Ohio Daily posted about the new crime stats ranking four Ohio cities as among the nation's "most dangerous," and both have mentioned some criticisms of the list. NPR's On the Media covered the story over the weekend, including a campaign by criminologists against using the FBI stats to rank cities. As the OTM guest noted, the FBI website on which the statistics appear warns against using them to rank cities. Click to access the crime data and you get a popup bearing the following:

    Each year when Crime in the United States is published, some entities use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction. The data user is, therefore, cautioned against comparing statistical data of individual reporting units from cities, metropolitan areas, states, or colleges or universities solely on the basis of their population coverage or student enrollment.
The popup links you to a more detailed set of cautions about the data.

As Bill Sloat notes in his post, whatever cautions the number crunchers put on, the fact remains that four Ohio cities are listed among the likes of Oakland and Compton California, Camden, NJ and Gary IN -- all cities synonymous with urban turmoil and failure.

But the most important caution offered on the OTM segment remains salient:
    The harm is that people use the information as if it were conveying something important about their risk for crime. But knowing the city a person lives in tells you nothing about the, quote, "danger" they may face. Knowing the neighborhood a person lives in might tell you something more important about their risk for crime. And, in fact, differences in crime risk across neighborhoods, within any city, tend to be much greater than differences between cities in crime rate.

    I also think that uncritical media attention compounds the error, and the city and its residents suffer as a result, I should say, especially the downtown areas of those cities. When people read about the city they're not already familiar with, they often associate the crime risk with the downtown area of the city, the place that people visit, stay in hotels downtown, visit cultural attractions, and so forth.

    In fact, of serious violent crimes that occur in the city, four to five percent of them tend to occur in the downtown area. When you consider the, you know, effective population of downtown areas, all the people who work there, who recreate there during the evenings, that's a very, very low percentage. But you'd never know about that from the crime rankings.