Crime in Worcester Spirals Higher in Latest National Ranking
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, the annual rankings factor murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft in more than 400 cities with populations above 75,000. While Worcester's rank has fallen, the city still compares favorably to others of like size throughout New England.
But with the FBI itself cautioning against the use of its crime data for rankings, the CQ Press annual survey has long faced criticism.
What do the rankings mean and how does Worcester fare?
Crime comes as a perennial issue for city residents. Through the early morning hours last Friday, law enforcement responded to two separate convenience stores for reported armed robberies. Over the past month alone, Worcester police reported the arrests of 15 individuals in nine separate cases involving firearm and drug charges.
But do those arrests evidence increasing rates of crime — or increasing law enforcement?
“We do well compared to other cities of a similar size in New England,” responded city Councilor Morris Bergman, chair of the standing committee on public safety. Particularly with respect to violent crime, “in the major crime issues Worcester does better.”
“We do have a lot of challenges,” Bergman continued, including the presence of gang violence. As the second-most populated city in New England, with approximately 10.8 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line, those latter offenses often appear as “crime on crime,” with violence taking place between gang members. “But it's still crime,” Bergman added. “You can never rest on your laurels. ... We should always do better.”
Michael Graham, the host of The Natural Truth on WCRN 830 AM in Worcester, points to national crime rates that have trended down. “My concern is that the level of gun-related crime in Massachusetts has been going up since 1998,” the year when the state passed a cornerstone gun control law, which has since coincided with declining rates of gun ownership. “What that tells me is we have a problem putting politics ahead of crime reduction.”
Graham called for enforcement of current laws covering gun crime offenses rather than politically expedient programs like gun buy-backs.
With a decrease in the number of police officers since the late-1990s, the emphasis in Worcester has turned toward a community policing approach that works with neighborhood associations. Some 50 such groups exist today, with police involvement, which Bergman cited as an excellent strategy.
A 2013 report by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau found property crime in the city had gradually declined over the past 15 years while violent crime remained largely flat.
Rankings correlate with demographics like household income
In CQ's latest survey, using FBI uniform crime reporting from 2012, Worcester is listed at 306th out of 400 cities. In 2010, the city placed 245 th.
Compared to other cities in Massachusetts, Worcester looks safer than Boston (322nd), Fall River (341st), New Bedford (344 th), Brockton (349th), Lawrence (365th), and Springfield (376th).
Lowell places better on the list at 213th; Quincy comes in at 136th; while Cambridge is higher still at 120th.
In a release accompanying the latest 2014 report, CQ Press authors say their city crime rankings “translates complicated and often convoluted statistics into meaningful, useful, and easy-to-understand information.”
A number of organizations including the FBI, American Society of Criminology, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have questioned the validity of such rankings in recent years. In a 2007 response to critics, former CQ Press Publisher John Jenkins said knowing whether crime is rising or falling is a first step toward addressing its causes.
Reporting of crime varies
“Although certainly the FBI cautions against it, people do routinely rank cities on crime,” says Alison Cares, an assistant professor of Sociology at Assumption College. One concern, Cares said, is different reporting standards, definitions, and laws between jurisdictions. “Some things may make it into the UCR, and some may not.”
With about 17,000 different law enforcement agencies nationwide, Robert Brooks, an associate professor in the criminal justice department at Worcester State University, agreed with Cares' assessment. “Some report with great care, some report with less care,” Brooks said.
“There are methodology issues that may cause some bias in the results, but I think the larger issue is cities are different from each other,” he continued. With demographic differences in age, ethnicity, and income, “these have independent and commensurate effects on crime.”
Comparing how cities ranked with the surrounding metropolitan area can produce dramatically different results. The Worcester metropolitan area places 118 out of 350 regions, safer than the national average, according to CQ's metro rankings.
Rates of reporting also matter, with people more likely to report a crime if they have faith in their local police. “The UCR deals with crimes reported to police, not (levels of) crime,” Brooks said. That's not to say the numbers are meaningless, he continued, but they do need to be put into perspective. Upwards of 20 percent of the decline in the nation's homicide rate can be attributed to better medical care, Brooks said as one example, courtesy faster response times and better emergency care.
Have a larger population under the age of 25? Statistically that results in more crime.
While the UCR program dates to 1929, the FBI has undertaken a new, more detailed survey called the UCR Redevelopment Project (UCRRP). But fewer local agencies are participating.
Related Slideshow: Worcester’s Most Dangerous Neighborhoods
Neighborhood search website Neighborhood Scout indexed violent and property crimes data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations to determine the crime rates on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis in Worcester. The slides below show the overall crime index (a score of 100 is best) as well as the per capita crime rates broken down by violent and property crime. The data is sourced from 2011 figures, the most recent year available from the FBI. The online resource is created by Location, Inc., a Worcester-area company that bills itself as a leader of location-based data and risk analysis information.
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