At a community meeting in a Lutheran church earlier this year, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing got an earful about his city’s distressingly high crime rate. The heckling started with members of his own police force.
“What are you doing to stop the blight, the drugs, the murder, the killing?” demanded Marcus Cumming, a police officer, at the neighborhood gathering reported by the Detroit Free Press.
What could the mayor say? The best crime news out of Detroit these days is that the rate of violent crimes – murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – fell 10% last year to 2,137 per 100,000 residents. That’s still more than five times the national average and more than enough to make Detroit America’s Most Dangerous City for the fourth year in a row.
To construct the list, we ranked U.S. cities with a population over 200,000 according to their violent crime rate as reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports database. These preliminary 2011 statistics come with more caveats than the black-box warning on a dangerous chemotherapy agent, and the FBI says they shouldn’t be used to compare one city with another. Differences in police reporting standards, urban borders and economics can make it tricky to compare densely populated Detroit, say, with sprawling Houston. We used cities instead of larger metropolitan statistical areas, which gave the disadvantage to older cities with tighter boundaries.
But consistency also means something, and the Top 10 cities on this list all display a lot of consistency both in their stubborn crime rates and their ranking on individual crimes like murder and rape. No. 2 St. Louis, for example, ranks fourth nationwide in murders, fifth in robberies and third in violent assaults. Detroit has lost more than 200,000 residents since 2001, yet it racked up 344 murders last year, compared with 395 a decade ago. The Motor City’s murder rate is second only to New Orleans among cities over 200,000 population (Flint, Mich. narrowly beats Detroit among all cities, with a murder rate of 52 per 100,000). Higher rates of other violent crimes put it at the top of the list.
Academic crime specialists also agree the statistics shouldn’t be used to compare cities, said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who also teaches criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. The local police department may slack off on reporting certain crimes, he said, “and suddenly the place got a whole lot safer.” Yet the statistics don’t lie when it comes to cities like Detroit and Flint, he added.
“The big takeaway is cities tend to stay where they are,” Roman said. “They tend not to move up and down in the rankings a lot over time.”
Detroit police acknowledge their city is a dangerous place — especially if you are a young gang member. Most homicides are “between known perpetrator and known victims,” said Inspector Charles Wilson, a spokesman for the 2,500-officer police force. “These aren’t random acts of violence. Instead of resolving conflict in a humane manner they resort to guns.”