AMERICA'S SAFEST CITY: AMHERST, N.Y.; THE MOST DANGEROUS: NEWARK, N.J.
(MONEY Magazine) – Crime may not be dead, but at least it's declining. According to the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, the violent-crime rate fell 4% nationwide in '95, while many cities like New York saw drops of 15% or more. Even so, most of us remain rightly concerned about the impact crime has on our personal safety--and our property values. So we must note that despite the recent welcome declines, the incidence of violent crime remains a disturbing 21% higher than it was in 1986. It's no surprise then that an exclusive Money telephone survey of 501 Americans nationwide recently conducted by the Roper Starch polling firm found that 61% called crime a serious problem or somewhat of a problem where they live.
Since crime preys heavily on our minds (and our wallets), MONEY and Morgan Quitno, a Lawrence, Kans. research firm that studies crime statistics, set out to identify the 10 safest and 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S. To arrive at our safety rankings, we adjusted the FBI's 1995 crime statistics for 202 cities with populations of at least 100,000 to give greater emphasis to the crimes you consider to be the most threatening. The safest place of all: Amherst, N.Y., a bucolic suburb of 107,000 residents just outside Buffalo that posted the lowest rates for both overall violent crime and burglary. Indeed, its 79 violent crimes and 201 burglaries per 100,000 residents are 88% and 80% below the national average, respectively. In Amherst, just one in 1,259 people was a victim of violent crime last year. Amherst ranked fifth safest in the U.S. for auto thefts, as just one in 505 people suffered a car theft in '95.
At the other end of the crime blotter is Newark, a flinty city of 260,000 eight miles west of New York City that has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous city on our list. In Newark--where the violent-crime rate is the country's highest at six times the national average--roughly one in 25 residents was a victim of violent crime. And if you're visiting, be careful where you park: Newark's car-theft rate is more than six times the national average. (For the names of the other safest and most dangerous places on our list, see the tables below and on page 24. A ranking of all 202 cities is available at MONEY's Website: http://money.com. You can also get comprehensive crime stats and rankings by ordering a copy of America's Safest Places ($9.95) from Morgan Quitno Press by mail (P.O. Box 1656, Lawrence, Kans. 66044) or through the company's Website (http://www.morganquitno.com).
Before explaining why some cities are isles of tranquility while others seethe with crime, we need to explain more about how we arrived at our rankings. To gauge the fear factor attached to specific crimes, Roper Starch asked people how threatened they felt by six major types of crime: aggravated assault, burglary, car theft, murder, rape and robbery. Despite all the media attention that murders get, we found that Americans worry most about someone breaking into their home. A full 66% of respondents called burglary a serious or somewhat serious threat to themselves and their families. Car theft was rated the second most threatening crime (61%), followed by robbery (60.4%), aggravated assault (50%), rape (48.5%) and finally murder (40%). Timothy Flanagan, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas, isn't surprised that people feel least imperiled by the prospect of being a murder victim. "We all make probability judgments, and the fact is that you are 26 times more likely to be robbed than murdered."
Armed with our poll results, we then asked Morgan Quitno to determine how much each city's crime rate in each of our six categories exceeded or fell short of the national average. The research firm then weighted those rankings according to the crimes people said threatened them the most, similar to the way we rank cities in our annual Best Places to Live in America survey. The sum of a city's score in all six crime categories determined its place in the MONEY/Morgan Quitno ranking.
So what drove some cities to the top of our safety list and others to the bottom? Amherst police chief John Askey attributes his city's No. 1 ranking more to its suburban setting and affluent, well-educated population than to any special crime-fighting prowess by his force. "Most cities with populations of more than 100,000 are urban settings where there is street crime, crowded living conditions and high levels of poverty," says Askey. "Amherst is more like a big, quiet suburb than a city, so we don't have those problems."
What's more, the 54-square-mile city brims with the kind of upscale demographic and economic characteristics that criminologists have long associated with low-crime communities: more than 70% of Amherst's homes (average value: $97,000) are owned rather than rented; more than 89% of its adults have a high school diploma; and Amherst's 2.6% unemployment rate is half the national rate of 5.2%. Our other top 10 safest cities, which include our 1996 Best Place to Live in America, Madison, Wis., and four wealthy California bedroom communities, have similarly rosy stats. For example, the $63,000 median household income for No. 2 safest city Thousand Oaks, Calif. is nearly double the U.S. median.
Conversely, the 10 cities that made our most-dangerous list tend to be large, densely populated urban areas plagued by poverty. That's certainly the case in Newark, where a population more than twice as big as Amherst's (260,000, vs. 107,000) is crammed into less than one-third the living space. Newark's median household income of $21,650 is 40% below the national average, and more than 26% of the local population live below the poverty line.
Newark does excel in one crime statistic: Its 446 police officers per 100,000 residents--nearly twice the national average--give Newark the fourth highest rate among large cities. As much as we hear about putting more cops on the street, sheer numbers don't automatically translate to low crime rates. Indeed, five of our 10 most dangerous cities are also among the 10 U.S. cities with the highest rate of police per 100,000 residents.
Joseph Santiago, the director of the 1,160-officer Newark police force, acknowledges his city's crime problem but believes he's making headway. Santiago says that through the first nine months of 1996, the number of violent crimes in Newark is running 18% below last year. One likely reason: He pulled 177 officers from desk jobs and put them on the street. Maintains Santiago: "We're making progress."