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VERIFY: Ranking locations by crime rate is inherently misleading

People have ranked the crime rates of cities and states in an effort to show flawed politics. The FBI says that's a misuse of the data.

A number of speakers during the Republican National Convention named major American cities as they claimed “Democrat-run cities” had the highest crime rates in the United States.

Those remarks were not too far off from charts and memes posted on social media for several months now. One post from June claims the top 25 “deadliest” cities all had a “Democrat majority” political leaning.

In response, others on social media have pointed out that many of the states with the highest crime rates were led by Republican governors.

Both memes claim to use the same source: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR). But the FBI itself explains on the UCR why rankings like the examples above are inaccurate and should be avoided.

THE QUESTION

Is it true that the deadliest cities in the United States have Democrat majority political leanings? Is it true that the states with the highest rates of violent crime are led by Republicans?

THE ANSWER

They are misleading.

The chart of deadliest cities doesn’t explain what data is used to rank the cities or determine their political leanings, but most of those cities do generally have a high rate of murders.

The tweet about states does correctly list the 10 states with the highest violent crime rates and does correctly list the party of the states’ current governors.

However, the accuracy of the data doesn’t really matter here. The FBI itself states that these rankings paint an incomplete picture of what actually impacts crime in certain areas.

WHAT WE FOUND

All of the data here comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. The chart about the cities cites it directly. The tweet about states cites a USA Today article that states it used the UCR as a source.

While the chart about cities doesn’t say which piece of data it used for its rankings, the rankings appear to be based on the murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate of cities in 2018, although it’s hard to say for sure because the rankings aren’t entirely accurate for that dataset. That data can be found in the FBI’s table of crime by metropolitan area for that year. The FBI didn’t list the murder rate for individual cities, just the metro areas as a whole, so a person trying to find that data would have to do some math of their own.

The USA Today article linked in the tweet about states directly references the violent crime rate by state, which can be found on one of its 2018 tables that breaks down the data by state and geographic region.

Neither the chart nor the tweet directly state how they determined the politics of a city or state. The vague language of the chart could mean “Democratic majority” is in reference to the city council, the voting patterns in recent elections or the registered voters affiliated with the party.

Either way, it’s true most big cities tend to vote for and elect Democrats, and the party affiliation the tweet about states attaches to the states listed lines up with the party of the current governor of those states.

Take note that the chart about Democrat-run cities lists Birmingham, Alabama. But the tweet about Republican-led states lists Alabama. Yet, both use the same data as their source.

Once you dive deeper beyond the surface level, you’ll find both claims are far more misleading than they first appear.

When the FBI released its 2018 crime statistics, it attached a warning that cautions the misuse of these statistics to compile rankings.

“These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region," the warning says." Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction.”

Elsewhere on its website, the FBI has a more thorough explanation as to why it warns against the use of its statistics for the purpose of ranking cities, states, metropolitan areas or universities.

“Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place. UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale,” the FBI says.

It then lists some factors that contribute to crime rates that are often ignored by rankings. Its list of potential influences on crime rate include a mix of factors that might have little connection to politics, factors that can be influenced by government intervention and politics and factors that government directly controls. Some of the factors listed are population density, youth concentration, climate, socioeconomic factors, poverty rate, population stability, modes of transportation, effective strength of law enforcement, criminal justice policy and crime reporting practices of the citizenry.

The FBI also states in its explanation that it does not “provide agency-based crime statistics to data users in a ranked format.” Hence why if you look at the UCR data itself, you will find there is no easy way to sort the data by some ranking.

There is one last issue the FBI mentions in using its data for rankings. It states “participating local, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies have voluntarily provided” the data in its report.

That means that the data can be affected by differences in how localities report crime. It also means that some localities can choose not to share their data in the report. For example, Birmingham, Alabama is not listed in the complete 2018 report, which means that the chart from above would have had to reference another source to get the city’s data. Other cities notably missing from the FBI’s dataset include New York City, Cleveland, Ohio, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The creation of these rankings are inherently flawed at base, regardless if they break down a city’s or a state’s crime and regardless of which government officials they blame. The mere presentation of these rankings is misleading.

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