How Violent is Albuquerque?

In an opinion piece in the New York Times a few weeks back, the writer said he was glad to be leaving Albuquerque because it was a “land of violence” where the rate of violent crime was twice the national average.

While the article provoked lots of discussion locally, the writer’s views of the city were not challenged by anyone at the City or State or in the local press. As one who frequently travels to large urban areas around the country, I found it hard to believe Albuquerque is extraordinarily dangerous. Could it be that I’m oblivious to the level of crime in the areas of the City I don’t frequent?

The FBI Crime Statistics for 2012 (the most recent full-year FBI numbers available) do indeed state that the rate of violent crime in Albuquerque is twice that of the country as a whole.

So Albuquerque is the most dangerous place in the country, right? Not exactly.

It turns out that of the 74 U.S. cities with more than 250,000 people, only 7 had violent crime rates lower than the national rate. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure that large urban areas would experience more violent crime than do smaller cities or rural areas. The FBI numbers confirm that.

In the FBI ranking of large cities, Albuquerque comes in not at number 1 in violent crime but at number 29.

Among the 28 large cities that have higher rates of violent crime than Albuquerque, some a great deal higher, are Houston, Tulsa, Kansas City, Nashville, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas, Nevada. The writer of the Times article said he thought Albuquerque felt more like the Mission District in San Francisco than Tucson where he’d previously lived. Yet the rate of violent crime in Tucson is just below Albuquerque’s, ranking only 5 places behind it.

In any event, the FBI and the American Society of Criminology both caution against ranking cities based on FBI crime data.

The FBI on its web site says its data should not be used for rankings because they lead to “simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents.”

In November 2007, the executive board of the American Society of Criminology (ASC) approved a resolution opposing not only the use of the ratings to judge police departments, but also opposing any development of city crime rankings from FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

The ASC resolution opposed such rankings on the grounds that they “fail to account for the many conditions affecting crime rates” and “divert attention from the individual and community characteristics that elevate crime in all cities”, though it did not provide sources or further elaborate on these claims.

The ASC resolution also states the rankings “represent an irresponsible misuse of the data and do groundless harm to many communities” and “work against a key goal of our society, which is a better understanding of crime-related issues by both scientists and the public”.

Certainly the City can and should do better in many ways but some perspective is in order.

Chuck Wellborn

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