Crime Down in Urban Cores and Suburbs

Published July 2, 2013

The latest data (2011) from the Federal Bureau of Investigation  (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) indicates that violent crime continued to  decline in both the suburbs and historical cores of major metropolitan areas  (over 1,000,000 residents). Since 2001, the rates of decline have been similar,  but contrary to  media reports, the decline has been slightly greater in the suburbs than in  the historical cores. Moreover, despite the preliminary report of a slight  increase in the violent crime rate at the national level in 2012, substantial  progress has been made in making the nation safer over the past 20 years.

Major Metropolitan  Area Trends

The FBI website includes complete data on 48 of the 51 major  metropolitan areas for 2011 (2012 data are not yet available for metropolitan areas).  The FBI notes that the data collection methodology for the city of Chicago and  the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul is inconsistent with UCR guidelines and as  a result, the FBI does not include information for these jurisdictions. No data  is reported for Providence.

Among these 48 major metropolitan areas, the violent crime  rate was 433 (offenses per 100,000 population known to the police),  approximately 10% above the national rate of 392 in 2011. The violent crime  rate in the historical  core municipalities, or urban core (See Suburbanized Core Cities) was 911 offenses per 100,000  population. In the suburbs, which consist of all municipalities not comprising  the historical cores, the violent rate was 272 offenses per 100,000 population.  Thus, the urban core violent crime rate was 3.3 times the suburban violent  crime rate (Figure 1).

A comparison of the urban core and suburban crime rates by  historical core municipality classification further illustrates the lower crime  rates generally associated with more suburban areas. The violent crime rates in  the more suburban urban cores are generally lower (Table 1).

  • Among metropolitan areas       with “Post-War & Suburban Core       Cities,” the urban core violent crime rate in 2011 was 2.2 times that of       the suburbs. This would include core cities such as Phoenix, San Jose,       Austin and others that became large metropolitan areas only after World       War II and the broad expansion of automobile ownership and detached, low       density housing.
  • In the metropolitan areas with “Pre-War & Suburban Core Cities,”       the urban core violent crime rate was 3.1 times that of the suburbs. These       would include core cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Milwaukee,       which combine a denser pre-war inner city with large swaths of post-World       War II suburban development within their borders.
  • The greatest difference was in the metropolitan areas with “Pre-War       & Non Suburban Core Cities,” where the urban core violent crime rate       was 4.4 times that of the suburbs. These would include such core cities as       New York, Philadelphia, Boston and others, which had large areas of high       density and significant central business districts before World War II,       and which, even today, have little post-World War II suburban development       within their borders.




Violent Crimes    Reported per 100,000 Population In Major Metropolitan Areas
Historcial Core Municipality    Classification Metropolitan Area Urban Core Suburbs Urban Core Times Suburbs Crime    Rate
Pre-War Core &    Non-Suburban 436 1,181 273 4.3
Pre-War Core & Suburban 443 821 265 3.1
Post War Suburban Core 398 642 294 2.2
48 Major Metropolitan Areas 433 911 272 3.3
No    data for Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Providence      


Suburban and Urban  Core Trends: 10 Years

Over the past decade, violent crime fell both in the suburbs  and the urban cores. Among the 36 major metropolitan areas for which complete  and comparable data is provided on the FBI website, the violent crime rate fell  an average of 25.8 percent between 2001 and 2011. Urban core violent crime  rates were down 22.7 percent, while suburb violent crime rates were down a  slightly less 26.7 percent (Figure 2).

Reconciling  Differences with Other Analyses

Other analyses have noted that urban core crime rates are  declining faster than in the suburbs. The differences between this and other analyses  are due to the use of different time periods, different metropolitan area sets,  and most importantly, profoundly more limited definitions of the suburbs.

An article in The Wall Street Journal raising  concerns about suburban crime rates was based on an FBI analysis of all metropolitan  areas, not just major metropolitan areas and covered 2001 to 2010. Crucially, the  FBI classifies much of suburbia as not being suburbs. The FBI defines suburbs generally  as any municipality in a metropolitan area with fewer than 50,000 residents as  well as areas patrolled by county law enforcements agencies. Non-core  municipalities with their own law enforcement that have 50,000 or more  residents are not considered suburbs, regardless of their location in the  metropolitan area. This would mean, for example, that Pomona would not be  considered a suburb, despite its location 30 miles from Los Angeles City Hall,  on the very edge of the metropolitan area, simply because it has more than  50,000 residents. As a result, the crime rates in “cities” versus suburbs cannot  be determined by simply comparing FBI geographical classifications.

A Brookings  Institution report reported suburban violent crime rates to be dropping  more slowly than in “primary cities,” which are a subset of the “principal  cities” defined by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Many of these  primary cities are virtually all post-World War II suburban in form. These  include, for example, Mesa, Arizona, Arlington, Texas and Aurora, Colorado, each  of which had fewer than 10,000 residents in 1950 and are virtually exclusively  the low-density, automobile oriented suburban development forms that would be  found in nearby Tempe, Grand Prairie, and Centennial, which are defined as “suburban”  in the Brookings classification. The Brookings report looked at major  metropolitan areas as well as smaller metropolitan areas and covered a longer  period (1990 to 2008).

OMB, which defines metropolitan areas, does not designate  any geography as suburban. OMB specifically  excluded “suburban” terminology from its 2000 metropolitan area criteria.  Instead, in recognition of the increasing polycentricity of metropolitan areas,  OMB began designating “principal cities.” Except for the largest city in a  metropolitan area, principal cities are defined by the strength of their  employment markets, and are generally suburban employment centers, not urban cores. In defining its metropolitan area criteria  for the 2000 census, OMB  recognized  that the monocentric city  (metropolitan area) had given way to an urban form with multiple employment  centers, located throughout the metropolitan area.

OMB’s principal cities may be located anywhere in the area,  without any relationship to the urban core. Rather than a single core city in a  metropolitan area, OMB has designated up to 25 principal cities in a single  metropolitan area.

The National Trend

The metropolitan area crime reductions are consistent with a  now two-decade trend of substantially improving crime rates. This is despite preliminary  data recently released by the FBI in June indicating a reversal of the trend  for 2012. The FBI reported violent that violent crime increased 1.2 percent.  With a 0.7 population increase from 2011 to 2012, the US violent crime rate  would increase to 394 per 100,000 residents, from 392 in 2011. Metropolitan  area data for 2012 is not yet available.

This increase in crime rates should be a matter of concern.  The 2012 violent crime rate increase is, hopefully, only a blip in a decline  that will soon resume. The violent crime rate has declined eighteen of the last  21 years. Since 1991, the violent crime rate has dropped by nearly half  (48.3%).

This is in stark contrast with the previous 30 years, during  which the violent crime rate increased in all but five years. By 1991, the  violent crime rate had increased 3.7 times from 1961. By 2012, the national  violent crime rate had fallen to the lowest level since 1970 (Figure 3).

Why Has the Crime  Rate Declined?

There are multiple theories about the causes of the crime  rate reduction. The late James Q. Wilson, who with George Kelling advanced the  “broken  windows” theory of crime prevention, offered  a number of additional reasons for the fact that crime rates remained much  lower, even during the Great Recession, in a Wall Street Journal commentary. The earliest and best publicized  improvements in crime rates occurred under New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in  the 1990s. Kelling and others (such as Hope  Corman of Rider University and Naci Mocan of Louisiana State University)  attribute much of the crime rate improvement in New York City to the “broken  windows” deterrence strategies.

The substantial decline in violent crime rates, in the  nation, metropolitan areas, suburbs and urban cores, are an important success  story. Yet, crime rates can never be too low. It can only be hoped that future  years will see even greater reductions.

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