City Crime Part 1: Factors Affecting Violent Crime

(Last Updated On: August 7, 2015)

City Crime gun Anonymous 200pxScience Fact: City crime is something you’d like to know about before visiting or moving to a new place. Today’s post describes the factors underlying city crime, especially violent crime. On Thursday we’ll continue by actually rating cities on their ability to control violent crime.

Every year brings a spate of Best Places to Live articles from Money Magazine, Sunset Magazine, Business Week, Kiplinger and websites such as Sperling’s BestPlaces and Livability. You won’t find any two sources to agree, because they all use different approaches: some crunch mountains of statistics; some consult experts; and some just ask the folks who live there!

City crime is always a factor that’s considered in those articles but it’s weighted more or less compared with other factors such as jobs, standard of living, sport venues and culture. However, it’s easy to find data on city crime if you’re willing to dig through dozens of tables in the FBI reports on Crime in the United States.

All reputable data sources always caution you against ranking one city against another. How’s that for useless advice! If we care about city crime we need ways to compare cities, and that requires using numbers. Better advice would be, compare cautiously. Why is that? Because city crime is a complicated topic that can’t be captured by a single number.

Consider these points:

– Types of City Crime. City crime is sorted into two major categories: violent crime and property crime. Since violent crime is of greatest concern to many people and can’t be negated simply by buying insurance, let’s limit our discussion to violent crime.

– Types of Violent Crime. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system divides violent crime into Murder, Rape, Burglary and Assault. My study of the data shows the following:
—–For cities of all sizes, murder is about 1% of violent crime; the smaller the city, the easier it is for the city to keep murder well under this number.
—–For larger cities, rape is 5% of violent crime; this increases to about 10% for cities of 10,000 to 25,000 population.
—–For cities over 1 million in population, robbery is 40% of the total; this decreases to 30% for cities of 100,000, and to 20% for cities of 10,000 to 25,000.

– City Size. There’s more violent crime in larger cities. In fact, there’s also more violent crime per thousand population in large cities. A large city offers many attractions such as jobs, entertainment, sports, culture and medical care, but those benefits come at the price of greater risk of city crime.

– Factors Affecting City Crime. The FBI lists many factors affecting city crime such as population density, demographics, population stability, transportation systems, economics, culture, family cohesiveness, climate, law enforcement strength and citizen attitudes. In addition, it appears that around half of certain crimes (murder and rape) go unreported.

– Urban Density and Neighborhoods. Neighborhood identity, makeup and population density also affect city crime. Urban density in particular has been a controversial factor. We might expect that more people per square mile leads to more violent crime because there are more opportunities for criminals to encounter victims, and due to the stress of urban environments. The most readable analysis of urban and suburban crime that I have read focused on one city – Nashville, Tennessee – and analyzed it by neighborhoods, using 467 census blocks as data sets. The authors found surprisingly that higher density tends to suppress violent crime, both in the central city and in suburbs, perhaps because of increased reporting and informal policing by citizens.

– Access to Weapons. Whether increased access to weapons leads to more or less violent crime is hotly debated and highly politicized. Wikipedia, in an article whose neutrality is disputed, quotes many studies that disagree with each other. Whether you are safer or less safe in a city with more guns probably depends on many other factors such as: cultural homogeneity; public attitudes; and whether there’s a tradition of gun ownership that promotes proper training and safe ownership practices.

Sites such as CrimeReports, MyLocalCrime and Neighborhood Scout show crime statistics by neighborhood and even by local address. However, in this blog I want to back off to a broader overview, looking at violent city crime at the whole-city level so we can make comparisons and draw conclusions.

Coming Attraction: Part 2 of this post will analyze crime data to derive crime safety ratings for U.S. cities.

Have you ever consulted a “Best Cities” or similar guide embodying city crime comparisons?

Drawing Credit: Anonymous, on


City Crime Part 1: Factors Affecting Violent Crime — 1 Comment

  1. Post update: In the paragraph “Factors Affecting City Crime” I have added a sentence quoting a Department of Justice study; the study found that half of murders and rapes go unreported.