Data, methodology questioned as Anchorage is named fifth dangerous city

Come celebrate 30 years!

Jonathon Taylor

Earlier this month when Forbes released its list of the most dangerous cities in the nation, Anchorage came in at number five. Now questions are being raised about the validity of the report and whether the methodology used to create it was flawed.

Forbes used data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) statistics released on Oct. 3 to compile its report. Cities were ranked based upon the average number of violent crimes (rape, murder, aggravated assault, and robbery) committed per 100,000 people.

Take Detroit, for instance. The Michigan city has been devastated by the economic downturn and was named the most dangerous city in the report. But an analysis by detroithub.com’s Data Driven Detroit, or D3, seems to indicate Forbes may have been off the mark.

D3 pointed out that, while Forbes may rank Detroit as the most dangerous city according to 2010 data, in 2009, Forbes also ranked Detroit as the 12th safest city in the nation.

“Is it possible that in the span of only two years, Detroit went from being the twelfth safest city to the most dangerous?” D3 questioned.

The Anchorage Police Department isn’t too happy about the report, either.

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“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” said APD Spokesman Lt. Dave Parker.

According to the FBI website, the UCR program was developed in 1929 in order to create an accurate database of nationwide crime statistics. The goal was to create a place where cities, states, and other localities could look back over the years and see how they were doing when it came to cutting crime rates, Parker said.

However, on the UCR website, the FBI explicitly warns against using the data to rank and compare cities, counties, and states.

“Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place,” the guidelines read. “UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.”

Parker said the uniqueness of each location includes how police departments report and view different crimes.

“Here in Anchorage, if a person woke up from a night of drinking with friends or something, and thought, ‘I feel like I had sex’ and reported it to the police, we would investigate and pursue that claim as a rape,” he explained. “In a place like New York, they’d probably say, ‘Too bad.’”

Additionally, the UCR relies on police departments voluntarily reporting the data.

“Not all cities participate,” said the D3 analysis, and some data is incomplete.

For instance, when searching for data for Springfield, Illinois, several of the fields in the table generated are blank.

Springfield was ranked at number three in the Forbes report, and Police Chief Robert Williams wasn’t pleased.

“I don’t want to point fingers at anyone else,” Williams told the Springfield State Journal Register on Oct. 4. “But I’ll tell you that we have a very strict interpretation as to how we report our crimes. We continue each year to compare apples to apples, and we see a downward trend. I respectfully dispute those statistics, as well as the methodology.”

The D3 analysis also noted the unique methodology of the report. Forbes used a different method of measuring the size of the Detroit metropolitan area than it did the other cities in the top 10, potentially undermining the city’s supposed number one ranking.

As Alden Lee noted in, “Crime on Decline,” [The Northern Light, Oct. 18] the crime rate in Anchorage is dropping.

Parker said the reason is two-fold: better enforcement and investigation, and more jail time and better sentencing. Somewhat similar to Rudy Giuliani and the New York City crime rate in the 1990s, Parker said the crackdown on crime – particularly illegal drugs – is making the city safer. He just wants the statistics to be used properly.

D3’s analysis agrees.

“We cannot be defensive about the issues we face,” their report concludes.  “We must be proactive. We just want the data, and the analysis, to be accurate.”