The Most Dangerous Places in America

Is Benton Harbor really the most dangerous place in Michigan?
Is Benton Harbor really the most dangerous place in Michigan? Photo from homesnacks.net

Yet another website has published a list of “most dangerous places.” A Facebook friend tipped me off to this one, which listed the “most dangerous cities” in Michigan.

These sites – and many news organizations – do the same thing. They pore over the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, compile violent crime rates from them, and then rank them – usually against other cities of comparable size.

So this particular site that a friend tagged for me said the “most dangerous” city in Michigan was Benton Harbor … which had, in 2013 (the most current statistics available) three homicides and 225 violent crimes.

Detroit, on the other hand, which ranked third on the list, had 316 homicides and 14,500 violent crimes. Flint, all the way down in sixth place, had 48 homicides and 19 violent crimes.

Now, before I reveal what the most dangerous places in the U.S. really are, let me help you understand the flawed logic behind these ranking sites.

Statistics Don’t Lie. But the People Who Use them Do.

Let’s start by naming the top five home run hitters in Major League Baseball history

1. Mark McGwire
2. Babe Ruth
3. Barry Bonds
4. Jim Thome
5. Ralph Kiner

What’s that, you say? Everyone knows the top five are Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Rodriguez and Mays? How can this be?

It’s the difference between incidence and rate. Mark McGwire has MLB’s highest home-run percentage vs. at-bats, Ruth is second. This logic, then, dictates that Benton Harbor is “more dangerous” than Detroit, that Camden, N.J. is “more dangerous” than Chicago.

But basing the average person’s “danger” on the rate presumes that violent crime is like the lottery, and every person in the city has bought a ticket.

Personally, I think a city in which there were 300+ murders and 14,000 violent crimes is far more “dangerous” than one where three people were killed and 225 robbed or assaulted.

But then, I think Barry Bonds hit 180 more home runs than Mark McGwire did.

The Most Dangerous Places

But let’s look at the ultimate danger – that is, death. Based on national death rates per 100,000, here are the most dangerous places in America:

1. Fast food restaurants (cardiovascular disease: 252)

2. Places that sell tobacco products (chronic lower respiratory disease: 47.2; malignant neoplasms of trachea, bronchus and lung, 49.4)

3. Your car (motor vehicle accidents: 41.3)

4. A workplace, or home, that presents a danger of falls or exposure to toxic materials, or a lake or swimming pool (nontransport accidents, 29.3)

5. Your pantry (diabetes: 23.9)

6. A hospital (hospital-acquired infections: 23.0)

7. The dark recesses of depression (suicide: 13.0)

Homicide, the gold standard of “danger” for place-ranking websites, comes in nationally at 5.1 deaths per 100,000 – just a little behind alcoholic liver disease (5.7)

Ponder number seven another moment though. If you’re going to die at someone’s hand, nationally, it’s 2.6 times as likely to be your own than someone else’s.

Yes, Detroit’s homicide rate per 100,000 is significantly higher than the national average, at 45. But even in Detroit, you’re 5.6 times as likely to die from heart disease than from a homicide.

What’s the Harm?

It bears noting that on its Uniform Crime Reports website, the FBI specifically cautions against using the statistics for ranking locations against each other. There are lots of reasons, not the least of which is inconsistency in reporting methodology (because FBI feels the number is underreported, Chicago shows zero rapes for 2013) and jurisdictional issues (the Sandy Hook shootings do not show up in Newtown, CT’s 2012 statistics – because the case was handled by the state police).

But we do it anyway. Why? I believe it to be a grotesque manifestation of Americans’ seemingly insatiable fetish for ranking, ratings and lists. Like quarterback ratings, college football polls and standardized test scores, they really tell us nothing but how something was arbitrarily measured at a given time. And, as we know, not everything that’s measured is important … and not everything that’s important can be measured.

So it could be considered harmless fun. If it were, indeed, harmless.

But it isn’t. It makes it even more difficult for cities to pull out of the decline that has led to high crime rates. You know how a lottery ad portrays everyone who plays as a winner? These ratings portray everyone who sets foot in the city as a violent crime victim. The characterizations are equally misleading.

Worse, it helps Americans do even more of what is one of their most self-defeating behaviors: being afraid of the wrong things. We have millions of preventable deaths because people are too afraid of the stranger at their door to be concerned about the cheesecake in their fridge.

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