BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Sunday and Monday, the annual list of the "safest" and "most dangerous" U.S. cities will be released to the media. This week in Atlanta, the American Society of Criminology passed a resolution regarding that list. Quote, "Without proper consideration of the limitations of these data, such rankings are invalid, damaging and irresponsible." In other words, they don't like the list. And mayors of the worst-ranked cities, St. Louis and Detroit, for instance, are crying foul.
Richard Rosenfeld is Curators' Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show. RICHARD ROSENFELD: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So to begin, the list is derived from data gathered by the FBI, right? RICHARD ROSENFELD: That's correct. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. So what is the difference between the crime rankings, the list that media outlets have received this week, and that of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports data from which this list is derived? RICHARD ROSENFELD: You cannot enter the FBI's website to look at 2006 crime statistics without reading a cautionary note that the FBI posts on its website. And that note reads, in part, "These rough rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents." So the FBI has a very strong bone to pick with these kinds of crime rankings. That's not because the FBI disbelieves in its own data. It's because the FBI is attempting to encourage people to use the data responsibly. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the list is published by Morgan Quitno, which has been acquired by CQ Press this year. CQ Press is a division of Congressional Quarterly, which is a highly-reputable news source likely to lend credibility to the list, perhaps. Do you worry about that? RICHARD ROSENFELD: Yes. In fact, I was sufficiently worried that I participated in a conference call with representatives of the FBI, a representative of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, another criminologist, myself and others on the call. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Including criminal justice journalists. RICHARD ROSENFELD: Yes, indeed. We spoke with the editor of CQ Press, as well as the person responsible for the list on which this item appears. They listened; I'm not sure they heard us. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we spoke to John Jenkins, who's the publisher of CQ Press, and he told us that this whole argument over the list is going on now for 13 years, but no one has assembled a coalition against it until the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard, which was hired by a St. Louis business group, got into it and managed to organize this sort of revolt.
Morgan Quitno, says Jenkins, doesn't just distribute the list. It also publishes an annual book which offers that FBI warning that you quoted, on its very first page. RICHARD ROSENFELD: Yeah. I find it ironic, somewhat astounding that a publication that ranks cities by their crime rates, anointing some as safe and others as dangerous, would have the gall to, on the first page of the publication, remind everyone that such rankings are meaningless. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What I don't understand is, what's the harm in sharing comparative data on the crime rates in various cities? RICHARD ROSENFELD: 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. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the fact that you're from St. Louis has nothing to do with this. RICHARD ROSENFELD: I'm from St. Louis and proud of it. I also happen to be a criminologist. And I hope and I trust that I would be saying very much the same thing, even if St. Louis didn't tend to end up high on these crime rankings. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you anticipate this week as the information begins to percolate through the press? RICHARD ROSENFELD: Well, to the degree that this week goes like this week did last year, the headlines will lead with whatever the city is number one, i.e., the most dangerous city, that's going to be the lead. I don't know that that's avoidable. I wish it were.
I would hope, though, that the accompanying articles and commentary make some of the points that have been made by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Society of Criminology, the FBI about why it is misleading to rank cities as more or less dangerous or safe based on central city crime rates. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. RICHARD ROSENFELD: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Rosenfeld is author of Crime and the American Dream.