Oakland ranked fifth most dangerous US city
on November 26, 2010
On Monday, the Congressional Quarterly (CQ) Press released its annual City Crime Rate Rankings list, which ranks cities from highest number of crimes reported to lowest. Little has changed since last year—the top five remain the same—and Oakland, California, is still one of them.
The good news, sort of, is that Oakland has dropped out of third place and is now No. 5. Nearby Richmond comes in sixth. St Louis, Missouri, is No. 1, and Camden, New Jersey, is No. 2, with Detroit and Flint, Michigan, coming in at Nos. 3 and 4. All the way at the bottom, with the fewest crimes reported, is Colonie, New York, a town of 80,000 people located to the northwest of Albany, New York. Colonie is No. 400.
The list is released each year in conjunction with a book, City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America. The CQ Press, an independent publisher based in Washington, D.C., took over publication of the book four years ago. To be ranked, each city is required to have a population of at least 75,000, and is responsible for submitting crime reports to the FBI. The submitted data is compiled for use in the book.
The numbers are measured per capita—for example, the national average is 429.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people. “Basically, it breaks down statistics by different types of crime,” says Ben Krasney, senior marketing manager at CQ Press. “It looks at six crime categories—murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft—and it looks at how cities fare across those categories, according to a national average.”
Statistics for individual cities, like Oakland, are available in the book itself (go to CQPress.com to order); because of the holiday weekend, the CQ Press was unable to provide the statistics in time for this story.
Krasney says that the book is controversial, but that CQ Press is simply the messenger, so please, don’t shoot. “It’s just a conversation starter,” says Krasney. “We don’t ask the important questions, or answer them. We just give out the numbers.”
But from the prospective of Barry Krisberg, senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Criminal Justice, the report is not what people should focus on. There is little logic in comparing one city’s crime activity to another, he says, particularly when the statistics are based on voluntary reporting.
“The biggest issue is that the study relies upon crimes reported, and historically, there’s been variation in that,” Krisberg says. “Cities that have better reporting actually look like they’re worse.”
As a rule, Krisberg says, only about half of all violent crimes are ever reported to the police. Gang related crimes, for example, often go unreported and unpunished. And a lot of this is determined by a funnel—“by the willingness of the public to report crimes,” Krisberg says. “For example, a city is less likely to report crimes to the police if it has large numbers of unauthorized immigrants.”
Krisberg says the best way to approach crime analysis is to focus on trends within cities and regions, and he points out that a recent shift in California’s crime rate is to be celebrated. “Crime has been going down in this country pretty dramatically for the last 15 years,” says Krisberg. “Most cities, particularly in California, are at levels of crime that rival the 1960s. That’s the big news.”
Krisberg also points out that comparing a city like Oakland, for example, with a city like Colonie, New York, is fruitless. Demographic, regional and cultural differences prevent the comparisons from being valuable, which is why Krisberg believes the public would be better served charting trends in a particular city. “The report is very controversial,” says Krisberg. “Every year when it comes out, the US Conference of Mayors condemns it.” Sure enough, on November 21, the conference issued a preemptive press release denouncing the “crime rankings as bogus and damaging to cities.”
Oakland mayor-elect Jean Quan is no exception—she gives very little weight to the study. “You know everybody rags on that methodology,” says Quan, referring to rankings based on crimes reported and comparing one city to another. ”It doesn’t necessarily show the patterns,” she said. “For example, our murder rate is down, but you can’t see that in those kinds of stats in this list.”
However, Krasney, of CQ Press, suggests that the book, if not just the list of cities, is beneficial to a city like Oakland for just such an analysis. “You can see how a city stacks up in the individual crime categories, and look at how a city measures against itself from year to year,” he says.
Quan says she’s not denying that Oakland has a crime problem. But, Quan says she’s focused solely on the progress of her city and finds no merit in seeing how it stacks up against others. “What we know is that burglaries are way up in Oakland,” says Quan. “We know domestic violence is up, although that just might be a matter of more people reporting it. The other crimes are down. And our new, lower rank in this study only confirms what we already knew: the trend in crime is decreasing.”
Image: Oakland Police Department officers cordon off a block in East Oakland on November 5, 2010. Photo by Nicole Jones.
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The mayors have a point. The ranking is meaningless. Not noted in the ranking is the fact that Oakland’s murder rate is better than at least one other city further down the list and possibly more. A decrease in the motor vehicle theft will probably improve how Oakland charts on the CQ ranking, but does nothing to address the fact there is one murder every 3 days.
I think looking at the trends in a region makes more sense. If our elected officials wanted to give us a raise, they should find a way to reduce car theft. We all pay for this with higher insurance rates. Want more money for schools find ways to tackle the social crimes that inhibit student attendance.
Krisberg’s observation that crime across California has dropped dramatically over the past 15 years is exactly the point: Oakland’s crime by it’s own reporting has not dropped much or even increased. When most other cities are plummeting, bragging about a smaller than average one time drop in one year in a few categories the way Dellums and Quan do is misleading at best.
[…] “Well, this is Piedmont,” Mather noted. But Piedmont is surrounded by Oakland, which has the fifth highest crime rate in the […]
Quan is in denial.