From the Nation’s “Most Dangerous” City: St. Louisans Say they Feel Safe Walking Alone at Night

2012-01-11_1326260477In a recent Gallup survey 74% of St. Louisans report that they feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where they live. That places the St. Louis MSA 14th among the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the US. St. Louisans report feeling safer than residents of Kansas City, Philadelphia, Nashville, San Francisco, Charlotte, Louisville. St. Louis is safe and we know it. It’s not that St. Louis doesn’t have a crime problem, it’s that the crime problem here shouldn’t define us any more or any less than it defines Phoenix, Columbus, Sacramento or Seattle.

St. Louis is a safe metropolitan region, a large majority of people who call themselves St. Louisans are safe and feel safe. The City of St. Louis has a crime problem, with the violent crime and homicide rates among the highest in the nation. Yet, if the city were to somehow simply push that crime across the county line, all the sudden the metropolitan area and the city would be labeled safe, without a single change in the number or types of crimes committed. The MSA rankings include the city numbers, meaning that the high rate of crime within the defined geographic boundary of the city isn’t of a magnitude that substantially pushes the MSA up the “dangerous” rankings.

The Gallup study’s headline was that Minneapolis-St. Paul residents are most likely to report feeling safe, while Memphis residents were least likely to report feeling safe. And the study found a strong negative correlation between the FBI’s 2010 violent crime rate for an MSA and the percentage of the MSA residents who report feeling safe. This reinforces that the perception of crime may mirror measured crime stats. In St. Louis, this means that most people feel safe in their county, or suburban community.


{land area of the City of Indianapolis in blue superimposed on the St. Louis region – City of St. Louis boundary in red}

When Gawker picked up the latest ratings, they did so with bit of honestly and a sense of humor: “The 25 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S. Are Mostly Nice Places”, they wrote. “According to a study of FBI crime statistics by CQ Press, St. Louis, Mo. was the “most dangerous city in the U.S.” in 2010, probably due to former St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire’s uncontrollable steroid-murder rages. Here’s the top 25: 1. St. Louis…” nextSTL has previously covered the crime ranking issue: St. Louis is 103rd Most Dangerous Metro Area and The St. Louis Metropolitan Region: Safer than Santa Fe (and 101 other MSAs) and What’s Wrong with Calling St. Louis the Nation’s Second Worst City for Crime? This.

detroit_worse than
{graphics such as this perpetuate ignorance about crime stats in order to sell home security}

The 100+ MSAs with more crime than St. Louis and the 35 of the largest 50 MSAs whose residents feel less safe than St. Louisans have bigger problems than our metro region. The only thing they lack is a political border than allows others to package the problem in a definable, rankable package and then broadcast to the world that their city isn’t safe. So what keeps us from being known as the very safe community we are? Our 1876 political border, and nothing else.

safety survey

About Alex Ihnen

Alex is the owner and editor of nextSTL.com. He earned a B.A. in Journalism and Masters in Public Affairs at Indiana University and has studied in Adelaide, Australia and Perugia, Italy. Alex can be found on Twitter @alexihnen and reached at alex@nextstl.com
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  • JZ71

    According to Gallup, the “Margins of error for individual MSAs are no greater than ±4 percentage points, and are ±3 percentage points in most MSAs.” which implies a fairly small sample. As with anything in statistics, it’s all in how you spin the results – a 6-8 point swing can jump any MSA up or down by 20+ spots . . .

  • T-Leb

    Today is Friday, download Police Scanner app and listen for 10-25 minutes tonight after 7pm. That’s real.

  • preiss_gutierrez

    I agree with the study. If a population experiences more crime, it makes logic sense that the population would be more fearful. But the fact is this study/gallop poll was in
    the county and measuring the county’s fear of crime. (1 million vs 300K how
    many of those 3 thousand people where from the county?)

    I would argue that people in the City would feel more unsafe. The study’s
    conclusion would lead to a higher fear of crime of course, but I think you
    missed a talking point on people’s perceptions of crime and how they are
    created.

    First hand experience, vicarious experience, and the media all shape a person’s
    fear of crime/feeling of safety. Apparently the county doesn’t have much
    experience with any kind of victimization and they don’t care about the news
    shoving city gun battles in their faces.

    People living in the city probably won’t be killed, raped, jumped, or have their window smashed. But that’s (probably) not what we’d hear from people on the street. What can we do to create a new perception of safety for the city? While at the same time effectively preventing crime and another 100+ murders this year? (FYI we’re up to 33)

    We could merge the city and county, fix those horribly misleading MSA crime rates; but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The county’s safety score may go up, but the people living in the city will still be faced with their first hand experience.

    Swarming, excuse me, hot spotting police resources works in the short term, but its not going to solve the crime problem for the city. And it’s not supposed to, because that’s not what police are for. Police maintain order. If an entire community is disordered its not solely because they aren’t being watched by a person with a badge and gun.

    If it takes a village to raise a child, then how do we raise a community? The fact is I believe that as a region we’ve allowed our wayward children to venture off. The most crime ridden communities have a host of socio-economic problems that started before any one reading this were born.

    So how do we address safety perceptions and crime? As a community, whether city or MSA, St. Louis needs to focus and and realize that if we want to fix crime we have to hold ourselves responsible for it. Although we don’t force any one person to pull a trigger, the generations before us laid the ground work for the opportunity for the gun to be used. It’s almost a question of is this our problem to fix?

  • Gary Kreie

    Many years ago I read that someone was ranking most expensive foods in the grocery store — per ounce. And the most expensive was — Kool-Aid (the powder). Twice as expensive as Coke — per ounce.

    Until you add the water. Then Kool-Aid cost is diluted and drops to 1/6 the cost of Coke.

    This is roughly how the statisticians have been doing St. Louis a disservice by ranking our city (city limits), which is the inner 1/12 of the metro area, against cities like San Antonio (city limits) that have annexed the inner 70% of their metro area — diluting their inner core crime stats with lower crime suburb stats.

    A full metro level ranking is more likely to represent truth, since metro denominator boundaries are all set by the same set of rules.

    Even St. Louisans are drinking the Kool-Aid. We all think we are the worst for violent crime, but we’ve never experienced it ourselves. We’ve just seen it on TV, or heard about crime from a friend of a friend.

    • dempster holland

      This is correct. The statisticians take the east way out and just
      compare central cities. This obviously puts st louis at a disadvantage.
      The real problem is that the press–including our own–publicizes these
      studies without pointing out their flaws and limitations

      • http://www.facebook.com/dance2022 Gary Kreie

        Especially when what they call the central city of San Antonio includes 70% of its suburbs. But the press never seem to call out the junk science from the CQ Press “cities” list.

  • Sisyphus

    Let me get this straight. So while the City admittedly has a big crime problem, we are nevertheless a “very safe community” as a whole? C’mon, man. For those of us who hold the City and the urban environment dear, that’s like saying, dude, I was just diagnosed with brain cancer, but since my head is only 5% of my total body weight, I am 95% healthy. That guy over there who has a sunburn is sick all over, so he’s much worse off than me.

    I appreciate that you like to provide a positive, pro-St. Louis perspective on this web site, I really do, but don’t tell me it’s only raining when in fact I’m getting pissed on. I can tell the difference.

    Last time I checked, this web site doesn’t tend to focus much on all the cool urban stuff to do in Wildwood and Ladue and Ballwin and Chesterfield. So why pretend that the low crime in those areas is such a positive thing for this region? I’m not saying it’s a negative thing, but I do think the low crime in those areas is the direct result of the purposeful isolation of the City by the County since the 1950s. You say that that the 1876 border is the only thing that keeps us from being perceived as a safe region? Well, yes, I suppose that’s true depending on how you crunch the numbers, but the City/County split also played a key role in allowing communities out west to isolate themselves from the City’s problems, so it’s kind of stupid to suggest that the border is some kind of meaningless line in the whole analysis.

    Indeed, the discrepancy in crime rates between City and the County just underscores how unsafe the City feels for people who live in Ladue or Wildwood or Ballwin or Ladue, or in other low crime suburbs with solid property values, decent schools, and low vacancy rates. Contrary to your analysis, crime rates don’t just average out over the region to make us a “very safe community.” Rather, a great discrepancy in crime between one place and another drives deflation and exacerbates the hollowing out of our core.

    To suggest otherwise, in my opinion, is intellectually dishonest.

    • Gary Kreie

      So where do you think you are safer, the inner core area of St. Louis? Or the inner core area of San Antonio? Suburbs of St. Louis? Or suburbs of San Antonio? Check both the city and metro rankings and get back to me with your answer, and explain why. Thanks.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I think the proper question is: “Where do you think you’re safer, the most dangerous part of Indianapolis or the most dangerous part of St. Louis?” Pick any major city and the most dangerous parts are very, very similar, as are the safest areas. The reality is that St. Louis has more safe areas, more people living in those safe areas than places like Indianapolis, Louisville, etc., but that’s not the perception because of how others abuse statistics.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I think you’re completely missing the point and I absolutely reject your opinion that the piece above is intellectually dishonest. If that’s your conclusion, you’re simply not paying attention. The point, above all, is that St. Louis shouldn’t be defined by the areas of the metro region with more crime in a different way than other metro areas. MSAs are the only apples-to-apples (intellectually honest) comparison available for crimes rates and by that measure, St. Louis is very safe. You make the same point as the article – that people in Ladue, Wildwood, Ballwin, in fact, the vast majority of “St. Louisans” feel very safe. In fact, a larger percentage of St. Louisans feel safe than residents of many other cities we perceive as safer than St. Louis. This is pretty straightforward stuff. If you believe that St. Louis is more dangerous than, say, Louisville or Nashville, you need to explain why St. Louisans report feeling safer than residents of those metros and why the St. Louis metro crime rate is lower than both. That may be difficult for some to append to the tilted view of St. Louis that has been perpetuated by the media and sadly adopted by many residents, but that doesn’t make it false.

      • DaveOfRichmond

        MSA’s are not the only apples-to-apples comparison? Couldn’t you compare the city crime stats with other cities of a similar size? St Louis is 62 sq. mi. (land area), Boston is 48, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis both 55, D.C. is 61, San Fran 47, Cleveland 77, Cinncinnati 78. From the numbers I’ve seen, St Louis has a higher violent crime rate than any of these cities. Is that not a valid comparison?

        Saying that St Louis doesn’t have a crime problem because people in the suburbs feel safe isn’t going to solve the very real crime problems that certain parts of the city most definitely have (and I acknowledge here that in many city neighborhoods, people probably feel safe most of the time).

        • Alex Ihnen

          No, it’s not a valid comparison. This is because some central cities (Boston, San Francisco and now D.C. just for example) are home to affluent populations and some are not. The numbers all depend on where different populations live, whether a violent neighborhood is on this side or that side of a city line.

          • Wayne Burkett

            The only reasonable scale at which to compare two cities in the abstract is at the regional level. This should be pretty obvious. But you’re too quick to dismiss the parent’s point. I don’t make safety decisions in the abstract. And I don’t toss a coin to decide whether I prefer the urban core or the suburbs. Assuming I’m a guy who prefers to live in a city’s inner core, then it is perfectly reasonable to compare the crime rates of two inner cores. Just as it’s perfectly reasonable to compare two suburbs.

            What this discussion highlights for me now (more than ever on this umpteenth go-around), is that it’s simply not very useful for individuals to compare cities on a regional scale. We’re talking about an area that’s too large to be meaningful on a personal level.

            I’m glad that people in Chesterfield feel safe walking around at night. But I don’t know what that has to with living in Baden. If our goal is apples-to-apples comparison for the purpose of national appearances, then, sure, it’s a fine goal, I guess. But it shouldn’t (and I think doesn’t) resonate as a useful distinction to the people living in high-crime areas.

          • Alex Ihnen

            The goal is largely to stop facilitating the abuse of statistics by others to the detriment of everyone living and working in the St. Louis area. Your observations are spot on, though I’d say that plenty of people make safety decisions in the abstract – that’s why people parrot the idea that “St. Louis is dangerous” when we know that it’s no more dangerous than Indianapolis or Santa Fe.

  • Richard Bose

    Could the SLMPD and the StL Co PD report crime stats as one? Or would they have to become one PD to do that? That would more than double the number of people in the place called St Louis.

    • jhoff1257

      St. Louis City would have to re-enter St. Louis County for unified crime stats. It wouldn’t have to be one police department as St. Louis County crime stats are reported as one County despite there being roughly 60ish separate police departments. In 2012 the combined City and County saw 150 murders, out of 1.3 million people, obviously 150 is too many, but compared to other cities, its below average. This isn’t a dangerous place, at all.

      • Gary Kreie

        In that case, we need to do like Chicago, and stop counting some crimes per the uniform code so the rankers will have to throw us out. Seriously, we should tell the FBI that we will stop reporting to them because the rankers who misuse their data are causing families to flee the city, making the crime rater worse — not better.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Yep. I suggested as much to Mayor Slay a couple years ago and was told that the city won’t hide behind false reporting or some such nonsense. And so we allow ourselves to be misrepresented to the world at a very great expense. Perhaps, perhaps with local control of the police, a different decision is possible, but I think we’ll need a mayor that cares more about the city than political calculus.

          • http://www.facebook.com/dance2022 Gary Kreie

            Maybe we can get the Mayor of St. Louis to use the same bogus methodology to brag that St. Louis has more skyscrapers per person than Chicago. Do the math. http://skyscraperpage.com/cities/?10=1
            I was trying to think of similar questionable analogies to the bogus ranking — such as, this may be shocking, but a whole egg has less cholesterol than an egg yolk alone, (per ounce). Therefore it is safer to eat the whole egg. You heard it here first.

          • http://www.facebook.com/dance2022 Gary Kreie

            I think it scary when St. Louisans themselves, even the Mayor, think there is legitimacy to the “city” ranking.

        • Wayne Burkett

          You have to be careful here. You’re saying that the problems are confined to the City, therefore we need to report on a regional level, which will soften the numbers. That position *supports* fleeing the City. A softening of the numbers would, by your logic, conceal the true nature of crime in the urban core and falsely (and dangerously) assuage the fears of City-dwellers.

          • http://www.facebook.com/dance2022 Gary Kreie

            Wayne Burkett, No, I’m saying compare inner core to inner core of a metro area, independent of where the political boundaries happen to lie. Or compare regional boundaries to regional. “Report” the actual crime rates with any boundary you choose, but when you “rank” one area against another, it just makes sense that you rank like-bounded areas. Normalize out the effects of arbitrary political boundaries. Otherwise, the rates may be correct, but the rankings are a lie, and do not tell you where you are safe. Comparing zip code areas, or MSA areas, are more fair because the US government sets the boundaries consistently for both. But “city” boundary penetrations vary wildly metro to metro , and if you don’t normalize out that contaminating effect, then you may be giving people just a ranking of cities that represent a low % of their metro areas only, but calling it a “dangerous cities” ranking.