As an undergrad in the process of applying to law school, I have a good understanding of how misleading numbers can be. I’m a better candidate than my LSAT score might indicate (I swear); my grade point average isn’t enough for law schools to judge me by because of a little thing called grade inflation, and just about every school insists it is better than its ranking in the U.S. News and World Report. By all accounts, to truly understand, you have to look beyond the numbers. Got it?
Detroit is the most dangerous city in America – according to crime statistics tallied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and fudged and released in a report called “City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America” by CQ Press. Ranking rates of violent crime such as murder and rape in 378 cities across the country (minimum population of 75,000), the report had Detroit edging out St. Louis and Flint for the crown. With the national average set at zero, Detroit’s “crime score” was 407. That ought to scare you enough to cancel that trip to the Red Wings game.
I know I’m not scared of the report’s findings. For one thing, according to The Associated Press, the FBI itself has said that “these rough rankings provide no insight” and “create misleading perceptions.” Also, the American Society of Criminology has decried the CQ Press report as “an irresponsible misuse” of crime data, the AP reported. Even overlooking all that, the fact that I lived in Detroit for several years while it topped such ridiculous lists is enough to discount for me such attempts to classify Detroit as more dangerous than any other urban center.
But I’ll tell you what does scare me. According to the AP, the people behind the report claim: The report “helps concerned Americans learn how their communities fare in the fight against crime. The first step in making our cities and states safer is to understand the true magnitude of their crime problems. This will only be achieved through straightforward data that all of us can use and understand.”
No. Taking that position is defeatist and only leads to ambivalence. Reducing violent crime to a numbers game results in simply putting more police officers in neighborhoods with high crime rates: It’s the outdated enforcement solution that has failed repeatedly for decades. We don’t need to know “the true magnitude” of America or Detroit’s crime problem; suffice it to say that there are many more violent crimes every year than there should be. What we need is to understand the specific, minute underlying factors for those crimes and their implications. We need to look beyond the numbers to understand why violent crime remains a bigger problem in America than in any comparable industrialized nation.
I went to high school in Canton, Mich. If you have picked up a local newspaper in the past couple of weeks, that might mean something to you. In a gruesome murder that left even Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy shocked, a 17-year-old senior at Canton High School teamed up with an 18-year-old friend from Westland, Mich. to lure a man into his grandfather’s garage, slit his throat and repeatedly stab him before decapitating him and burning his hands and feet with a blowtorch.
I don’t know where Canton ranks on the City Crime Rankings list, but reading about that case for the first time left me paralyzed. Should we treat this murder as less important simply because there weren’t several more in its vicinity? It doesn’t matter how many other killers and murders there are in Canton: All that matters is why these two kids committed their barbaric acts.
In saying that its rankings are a vital step in stopping crime, the CQ Press is taking the easy way out. If counting murders could help stop them, then I’d be on board, but the true solution is much more demanding. A real solution would ask “why” in places where no one is comfortable; it would ask for the story of a person’s entire life, not the insignificant motion of pulling a trigger.
Preventing crimes like the one in Canton involves asking why a student who kept an extensive death list on his person at all times is still described as “a nice guy” and “a great kid” by people who knew him, as seems to be the case with every school shooter, rapist, robber, etc. Have we lost our grip on what type of behavior is a sign of clear, imminent danger?
People need to be educated, not frightened. We have distractive, unproductive lists like the City Crime Rankings to blame for shifting the focus from understanding to enforcement, but we’re not going to win this battle with police officers and prosecutors alone. We need doctors, psychiatrists, sociologists and experts in many other fields to share information, codify procedure and diagnoses and be forthcoming with their insights on every individual crime and its circumstances.
But all that means nothing if you’re bent on making a horse race out of crime statistics.
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.