As the controversy over America’s policing practices continues to boil over in many parts of the country, certain trends in the overall crime data have gone mostly unnoticed. The most important of these is the somewhat mysterious decline in crime rates. Violent crime rates are currently the lowest they have been since the late 1970s.1 Sexual assaults have decreased dramatically in the past 20 years.2 Even property crime rates, although still higher than that of violent crimes, are remarkably lower than any other time in recent history.3
This begs the question: With lowering crime rates, which American cities (population 500,000+) are now the safest? There are any number of ways to answer this question. We decided to take a look specifically at burglary rates. As our economy continues to plod its way slowly out of the worst recession since the early 1980s, many people may be surprised to discover that hard economic times did not increase burglary rates. In truth, throughout the dramatic housing bubble bust, the burglary rate continued its slow march downward right along with most other crimes, defying many theories that suggest otherwise.4
We certainly lack the expertise to explain why most crime rates continue to fall. Even the most talented economists and statisticians are still struggling to find a definitive answer to that curious question. However, many of America’s largest cities are posting impressive declines in burglary rates, presenting a valuable opportunity to rank them.
We dug into the FBI’s heavily-loaded Uniform Crime Report, looking for two specific data types: population size and historical burglary rates. Filtering only for cities with a population above 500,000 gave us a much shorter list to work with. A simple reorganization of that list gave us the top 10 rather quickly. However, we added some additional criteria beyond that to make things as fair as possible for every city listed:
- We only included cities that reported their most recent data to the FBI.
- We excluded any cities that had double-digit increases in their burglary rates.
- We excluded any cities that had an overall upward trend (over 1%) in their burglary rates between 2010 and 2014.
Furthermore, for each city above 500,000 people that had available 2014 data, we identified the percentage rate of change between 2010 and 2014. Even for cities that did not make the below list, the numbers often provided interesting stories, some of which we’ll share in the conclusions.
10. Denver, Colorado
- Population: 675,353
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 684.6
- Percent Change (2010-2014): 1%
Between 2010 and 2012, Denver’s burglary rate increased 14%. But between 2010 and 2014, the city’s rate increase sits at a negligible 1%. As Denver rests precariously at the bottom of the list, it’s possible that we may soon see Denver drop off the list completely. The next closest city, Charlotte, North Carolina, which has experienced a 35% decrease in its burglary rate between 2010 and 2014, and with a rate that is close to what we see in Denver (703.8 burglaries per 100,000 people), is right on the Mile High City’s heels.
Denver and Austin are good examples of cities that are experiencing tremendous population growth. Unlike Austin, Denver’s burglary rates are more or less keeping up with statistical suggestions that a city’s crime rate increases with its population size. This dramatic growth, with nearly 100,000 people added to the city’s population in the past 15 years, may have some part to play in the city’s burglary rate increase. Yet it also raises the question as to what differences exist between the culture of both the police and the citizens of the two cities that could result in vastly different burglary rates and change percentages.
9. Portland, Oregon
- Population: 615,672
- Burglary Rate (2014): 673.4
- Percent Change (2010-2014): 1%
For many Portlanders, it’s easy to believe that the city deserves a place on multiple positive lists. And indeed, Portland has come a long way. During the ’90s, Portland’s burglary rates were at times more than double what they are today. However, the city has experienced a slow but steady increase in its burglary rate since reaching a 30 year low. When we initially looked at the data, we only examined the numbers between 2010-2012, noting a 9% increase. However, we also noted some changes in Portland’s governmental practices toward on-going issues related to crime that could have had an effect on the data. When we expanded our analysis to cover the 2010-2014 date range, we did indeed see a decrease in the numbers, with a percentage change that more or less leveled out.
The FBI notes that Portland’s burglary rate fell 4.3% from 2013 to 2014,5 a trend that may continue. Even though it sits near the bottom of the list, Portland’s place on the list is wholly justified by the numbers. However, Portland’s current homelessness crisis may be a direct factor in the city’s unexpected burglary rate increase over the past several years.6 The city has taken great strides to combat this issue, and it seems to be working.
8. Austin, Texas
- Population: 903,924
- Burglary Rate (2014): 634.23
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -34%
Austin’s percent decrease in burglary was undeniably one of the largest of any city with a population above 500,000. In fact, had our list used data from between 2010 and 2012, the city would not have made the top 10. During the past two years alone, the city has increased its percent decrease in burglary rates, from 17% during the 2010-2012 period, to -34% in the 2010-2014 time frame. This impressive decline allowed the city to hop above both Portland and Denver, two cities that are experiencing significant growing pains and other issues negatively affecting growth in this area.
While Austin is not close enough to the southern border to get embroiled in an on-going political struggle over illegal immigration, its major problem has been one facing most of Texas: an extremely rapid population increase.7 As some statistical analyses have shown, population sizes can have a direct impact on crime rates, typically driving them upward.8 This will certainly be a concern for Austin going forward. As it stands, however, that population increase has not negatively impacted its burglary rate, which has dropped at an increasingly faster pace, even as the population has increased. This raises several interesting questions for study. What’s behind Austin’s drop in crime rates? The culture of those moving into (or out of) the city, or policing practices?
7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Population: 1,559,062
- Burglary Rate (2014): 621.7
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -10%
Often derisively called the “City of Brotherly Shove,” Philadelphia has been battling to restore its image for some time now. If its current trends continue, it may do just that. Between 2010 and 2012, the city experienced a 9% increase in burglaries. Yet between 2010 and 2014, that overall percentage change was -10%. This shift is noteworthy. Although more attention is given to the city’s violent crime rates (which are also dropping),9 an overall drop in the city’s various crime rates would seem to indicate positive changes in policing practices.
However, there was a mostly-ignored drop in burglary rates in several of the city’s neighborhoods back in 2012.10 At the time, police indicated that this drop was not due to a change in arrests. Instead, Lt. Edward Bier of the city’s 39th Police District had this to say:
“Hopefully, people are making themselves harder targets.”
This perhaps highlights one possible reason crime rates are dropping across the country: culture change. Indeed, it may be that people, not policies or policing practices, are what’s most influencing these changes.
6. Washington, District of Columbia
- Population: 658,893
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 525.8
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -18%
The Nation’s Capital is one U.S. city where crime is exceedingly common, although less common than Washington D.C. Metro area residents may think. Between 2010 and 2014, the city saw a rather significant 17% decrease in burglaries. The positioning of the city between two major states makes it very common for crime to spill over from outside of the city, and vice-versa. The decrease in most types of crime in the city has been an issue of controversy. Some attribute it to on-going gentrification in some of the city’s primarily black neighborhoods. However, notable research suggests the commonly held belief that gentrification decreases crime may, in fact, be just the opposite: that it can increase crimes such as burglary.11
DC’s current decrease in crime rates offers a much more complex picture than what we might see in most other cities, offering up a unique opportunity for further study.
5. Boston, Massachusetts
- Population: 654,413
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 409.5
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -25%
Densely populated Boston is equally historic and safe. As one of only two Northeastern cities to make the list (Washington D.C. is not considered as part of the Northeast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), it may lead some to wonder what Boston is doing right to keep its crime rates down. While the city’s police department is poorly received by the general public, it is at least clear that government policies have had some positive effects.12
Nevertheless, Boston’s crime rates are not good in comparison to the rest of the state,13 in no small part because Boston is the only large city in the state. As such, its policing challenges are unique among other Massachusetts cities. The next largest city, Worcester, has a population that’s under 200,000. The majority of Massachusetts is comprised of much smaller cities and towns where crimes of all kinds tend to be a much more trivial issue.
4. Los Angeles, California
- Population: 3,906,772
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 385.7
- Percent Change (2010-2014): 1%
Los Angeles posted significant declines in its burglary rate in the past few decades. However, this is seemingly unraveling bit by bit as the city experienced a steep, 19% increase in burglary rates between 2010 and 2012. In the past two years, the city has done a fair job at stemming this rising tide, bringing that rate of increase to a statistically negligible 1%. Los Angeles is one city to keep an eye on for when the FBI releases its official updated datasets beyond 2014, however.
The LA Times recently wrote about a noticeable increase in the city’s crime rates, which they identified as affecting every single category.14 Although the FBI has not made this information available just yet, the Los Angeles Police Department does provide the data upon request. According to the LA Times’ reporting, it appears to show a somewhat troubling trend for the city.
3. San Diego, California
- Population: 1,368,690
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 373.7
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -20%
Although their burglary rates are similar on the surface, San Diego and Los Angeles are far from two peas in a pod. The much smaller population in San Diego leads to a much more relaxed way of life. San Diego is likewise home to a wealthier population in a more well-to-do suburban setting. And while Los Angeles is but a 3 hours’ drive north of San Diego, San Diego is enjoying a significant decrease in its burglary rates. Between 2010-2012, that percent rate of change was -8%. Between 2010 and 2014, it was -20%.
This accelerating drop in the burglary rate is one many will continue to watch, and that San Diego’s police department will likely continue to advertise. Interestingly, the San Diego Police Department’s crime data indicates that the city’s crime rate rose 6% in 2015,15 primarily due to property theft. Whether this is a new and on-going trend for the city is something to watch in coming years. Nevertheless, San Diego has surpassed Los Angeles as the safest large city in California.
2. El Paso, Texas
- Population: 680,273
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 270.3
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -19%
Although not the only Texas city with a large population, El Paso was the only one to land so high on our list. Residents in the next closest Texas city, Austin, were nearly 3 times more likely to be a burglary victim. It’s interesting to note that El Paso continues to post decreases in its burglary rate. Between 2010 and 2012, its rate of change was -7%. If it continues at the current pace, it could be set to surpass New York City as the largest city in the country with the lowest burglary rate.
As a border city, El Paso’s police forces deal directly with America’s ongoing illegal immigration issue. Contrary to some beliefs, however, illegal immigration has not led to a stark rise in crime. The city has lower crime rates than both Texas as a whole and the rest of the U.S. in general.16 This is, of course, not true of all border cities, making El Paso a place where researchers may want to focus their attention.
1. New York City, New York
- Population: 8,473,938
- Burglary Rate Per 100,000 People (2014): 232.11
- Percent Change (2010-2014): -19%
It may surprise many to find New York City topping this list. As the largest city in the country, it’s easy to imagine that the Big Apple is also the most crime-ridden. And indeed, it was only as recently as the 1990s that New York’s reputation as a crime hub was well known. However, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani is perhaps best known for his efforts to “clean up New York”. This included a focus on increasing arrests for low-level crimes,17 an action that some attribute directly to the decrease in burglary rates during the late 90s and into the early to 2000s.
New York’s government promotes this lower crime level rather actively. An increase between 2010 and 2012 was duly noted by media outlets.18 This increase may relate to a walking back of the policing practices that got the city to its lower rate in the first place. However, the end of the sometimes controversial “stop and frisk” practice seems to have paid off, as the city’s overall percent rate of change between 2010 and 2015 has fallen significantly.
Methodology and Conclusions
We dug into the FBI’s heavily-loaded Uniform Crime Report, discovering rather easily the most relevant data: population sizes and historic crime rates. However, the FBI only provides data up to 2014. And in the case of Chicago, Fort Worth, Tucson and Las Vegas, that data simply has not been reported yet.
Filtering only for cities with a population size of 500,000 or more gave us a list 34 U.S. cities. Although this is a far cry from the thousands of cities in the U.S., those 34 cities represent over 40 million people or around 10% of the U.S. population. The FBI provides the raw numbers as well as burglary rates per 100,000 people. To determine how these numbers were changing over time, we also crunched the numbers in order to identify the percent of change between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent year available in the UCR).
Our decision to only assess cities with population sizes of 500,000 people or more provided us with the opportunity to cover a fairly sizable portion of the U.S. population. Because larger cities tend to have similar crime problems, and quite often similar policing practices, this particular cut-off allowed us to edge closer to more a more uniform listing. That said, the vast differences in policing practices across the board still makes any comparison tenuous at best.
Issues with Crime Data
As crime data is voluntarily self-reported, some cities provide their data well after the FBI publishes its yearly UCR tool. This helps highlight some of the complexities and difficulties when dealing with crime data. First and foremost is the issue of subjectivity in policing practices. No city makes arrests the same way. While one city may place a heavy focus on stamping out burglary, others may only put marginal amounts of manpower toward the crime. This means that city-by-city, the crime data is far from “uniform”. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report may have the term “uniform” in the name, yet the FBI readily admits that differences in policing practices create difficulties with ranking municipalities. Indeed, the agency stands firmly against using the data to create such rankings.19 We acknowledge and respect this stance. As such, our ranking is best used to form a discussion and not necessarily to draw comparisons between municipalities.
San Jose is a perfect example of how the data can be used to form this discussion. The city’s data forms the backbone of a story that is every bit as interesting as which city comes out on “top”. By the numbers, San Jose should have been #7 on our list. However, San Jose’s crime data was not trending in a good direction. By that, we mean that between 2010 and 2014, the city saw a 31% increase in its burglary rate. The city posted the largest increase of any city on our list, seeing nearly a ⅓ increase in burglaries between 2010 and 2014.20 Within this rise is a troubling fact for San Jose: The city’s burglary rate was 35% less than both the U.S. as a whole and the rest of California only a decade ago. So what changed?
Media outlets in Silicon Valley have noted this increase, identifying a decrease in arrests that has coincided with it as well. If the lesson of New York City in the ’90s is any indication, one may think that San Jose’s solution is simple: crack down on crime in order to send a vital message. Yet the solution is more complicated than that.
San Jose serves as a prime example of the known shortcomings of the FBI’s Unified Crime Reporting (an issue where the FBI is not at fault), as well the significant impact that low pay and high stress can have on the effectiveness of a police force.
While 4 years may not seem like a lot of time for dramatic changes in data (high school graduation rates, for example, change very little year-over-year), our research into burglary rates indicated an interesting scenario: burglary rates in many U.S. cities continued the overall declines that have been identified since the 1970s. However, several cities beyond just San Jose still posted a double-digit percent growth between 2010 and 2014, reflecting internal struggles within those police departments. Meanwhile, we saw dramatic decreases in crime for some cities between 2012 and 2014, reflecting very important changes within some cities. Most notable among these are Boston (due to hiring and policing practice scandals)21 and Portland (due to an ongoing homelessness issue).22
Many journalists and researchers have already attempted to find an answer as to why most crime rates are falling nationwide. As noted by Forbes in 2015, several theories exist that attempt to find a purpose behind the trend. Notable among these is the theory that crime rates fall when the economy is good,23 that lower rates of substance abuse could be a factor, or even that access to abortion24 (particularly noted in the economics bestseller Freakonomics) plays a significant role. There are arguments for and against each of these having any direct or even indirect impact, with each likely to get embroiled in politics.
All we know for certain, based on clearly observable data, is that crime rates are falling and that they have been doing so for the past 20-30 years. Almost every city on our list, and most not on our list, is safer today than 10 years ago. Yet in recent years, some cities have seen slight and sometimes even dramatic upticks in their burglary rates, while others have increased their rate of decline. What are the commonalities between cities that have seen increases and decreases in their burglary rates? What’s changed in the past several years that may account for this? The practice of ranking cities using crime data may ruffle a few feathers due to the inherent difficulties therein, but it does help us identify trends that open up valuable opportunities for deeper discussions and analysis.