Dubious Distinction

More controversial than BCS football rankings: surveys that name "most violent" cities.



St. Louis had only one weekend to enjoy its World Series championship before a survey came out naming it the most dangerous city in the United States.

Memphis knows the feeling. This summer, the Memphis metro area (including parts of Arkansas and Mississippi) was ranked the second-most crime-ridden among the 100 largest metro areas in the country, based on FBI crime reports. And, based on instances per 100,000 population, it was number one for burglary and robbery and number two for murder behind New Orleans.

People who study crime patterns -- including Michael Heidingsfield and Tom Kirby at the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, Lieutenant Joe Scott at the Memphis Police Department, and the FBI -- agree that city comparisons are badly flawed because of demographic differences. (The city of St. Louis, for example, includes only one-fourth the population of St. Louis County.) But they admit that they're as inevitable as football rankings and can't be ignored in a media age that bombards readers, viewers, and listeners with a steady diet of "best and worst" lists. And crime rankings are an illusion with a powerful impact. They clearly influenced Mayor Willie Herenton to ask for more cops and are driving people to leave Memphis.

The MPD and the crime commission look at trends within Memphis. Maps and trends tell stories. But a general statement about an increase or decrease in crime is meaningless. There are four main categories of personal crime (murder, rape, robbery, and assault) and three categories of property crime (burglary, theft, and auto theft).

Murder gets the most publicity, but your chances of being murdered by a stranger are miniscule. Over the last 15 years, the mean number of murders in Memphis was 160 a year, and Scott thinks Memphis, now at 137, will be below that in 2006. Of the 128 murders this year in which the perpetrator has been identified, 99 were black on black. In 71 percent of murders, victims knew their killers. There were 137 murders in all of 2005, 105 in 2004, and 213 in 1993.

"In the 1990s, we were a much more violent city," says Scott.

Then there's the problem of sample bias. What about gunmen who wound their victims, shoot and miss, or threaten someone but don't pull the trigger? There is no single category for that, although the difference between a shooting and a murder is usually a quarter of an inch, as New York City police commissioner William Bratton notes in his book Turnaround.

Some bad news: The rate for aggravated assault has nearly doubled in 10 years and soared more than 30 percent last year alone. Larceny-theft has trended upward for 10 years. And the burglary rate is consistently one of the highest in the country. Overall, the FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) count of violent crimes for Memphis was up 25 percent in 2005 and, at the current pace, will be up about 3 or 4 percent this year.

Some good news: MPD clears 55 percent of felony assaults, a number Scott calls "amazing." Burglary was down in the month of October compared to the first nine months of 2006. Car theft is down 15 percent this year because police busted some chop shops and manufacturers have made cars harder to steal. And forcible rape has dropped more than 60 percent in 10 years, although the crime commission says reporting procedures account for some of that.

"Over the last three months, the things we implemented have helped," said Scott. "I think Blue Crush is slowly starting to make some type of difference."

Like football rankings, crime stats can be maddeningly complex. The Survey That Slimed St. Louis, aka the Morgan Quitno Awards, is compiled by a private research and publishing company. The Shelby County district attorney general's annual report looks at both Memphis and Shelby County. The UCR looks at metro areas. Television is preoccupied with the crime of the day. The crime commission would seem well-suited to bring some clarification to this, along with some policy recommendations.

Shoot the messenger if you like, or pick a different one, but the final measure of how dangerous a place Memphis is probably depends on your personal experience.

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