Some Call Dangerous-City Ratings a Crime

The CQ Press Rankings
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - November 21, 2007
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

If the FBI has said it once, it has said it a thousand times: Do not use its crime statistics to rank the nation's most dangerous cities.

That didn't stop CQ Press from releasing a book this week that does just that. And it didn't stop officials from cities on the list -- not the ones ranked safest, of course -- from furiously protesting that the rankings were not only meaningless but unfair.

Detroit and St. Louis, the cities that top the new list, have attacked the rankings.

"It really makes you wonder if the organization is truly concerned with evaluating crime or increasing their profit," Detroit Police Chief Ella Bully-Cummings said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press. "With crime experts across the country routinely denouncing the findings, I believe the answer is clear."

Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri told National Public Radio, "I find it ironic, somewhat astounding, that a publication . . . would have the gall to, on the first page of the publication, remind everyone that such rankings are meaningless."

The trouble with rankings, said FBI spokesman Bill Carter, is that they do not take into account the many factors that affect criminality in any city. The numbers, he said, don't include factors such as residents' perception of what constitutes a reportable crime, or a population's ethnic, racial or generational makeup.

In a big caveat on its Web site, the FBI says: "Rankings . . . provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, country, state, region or other jurisdiction . . . these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions."

Yet every year, Carter said: "Academia, sociologists, criminologists, economists, look at the data and use it for their purposes. We don't do that."

Michael Tonry, past president of the American Society of Criminology and a professor of law and public policy at the University of Minnesota School of Law, said the FBI numbers don't account for the concentration of crime, an important determinant of overall safety. Heavily urbanized cities will have more crime per capita, he said, than sprawling ones such as Phoenix, whose boundaries encompass low-crime outskirts.

"This is a crude, simple-minded error" in the CQ ranking, Tonry said.

Doug Goldenberg-Hart, CQ Press acquisitions editor, said the objections are orchestrated by the cities themselves, as part of a massive effort by the least-safe cities "to spin the rankings" after CQ's purchase of the mom-and-pop publisher of the rankings.

"There's no scary, tricky formula where we're putting our thumb on the scale," he said.

All sides agree that when CQ Press bought Morgan Quitno it unwittingly jumped into the middle of a fierce competition among cities for tourism, convention and corporate dollars.

"We really wanted to soft-shoe this. . . . It took on a life of its own," Goldenberg-Hart said. CQ Press is a division of Congressional Quarterly Inc., whose publications, which focus on government and politics, are ultimately owned by the St. Petersburg Times and the Poynter Institute, a bastion of journalistic ethics instruction.

Morgan Quitno, the Kansas-based company owned by a husband-and-wife team, has produced the crime ranking for more than a decade.

"We stand behind it because we think it offers the public data that they can understand and make sense of," Goldenberg-Hart said. "It's filling a vacuum and filling it in a way that allows people around the country to ask pointed questions."

When Morgan Quitno publishes lists of smartest and healthiest states, "nobody comes after us," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company