Math is Hard: Fear is Not Danger

A recent Gallup poll names the Houston, Sugar Land, and Baytown region among the least safe U.S. metro areas, according to resident confidence in the safety of where they live.

Only 63 percent of those polled in the Houston area responded that they felt safe walking alone at night in the area they reside.

* * * * *

Compare that to the 80 percent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area who feel totally secure walking after dark. Texans might scoff that with frigid Minnesota temperatures, criminals would be stymied to commit violent acts in five layers of clothing. Houston must have crime-friendly weather, for the most part.

(Houston Chronicle.)

Maybe. Or Minneapolitans might more realistically scoff that Houstonians are more frightened than their crime rate merits.

The headline on the Chronicle article is Poll of residents puts Houston on list of least-safe U.S. cities. “Most-frightened” would have been more accurate: there is no strong correlation between violent-crime rates and residents’ fear.

Crime Rates By City

According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics for 2010*, Houston’s violent-crime rate (as reported by HPD) edges Minneapolis’s (as reported by MPD) only narrowly: 1071.3 violent crimes per 100,000, compared to 1062.3 for Minneapolis. (So much for the “too cold in Minnesota to jack people” theory.)

Jacksonville residents are as scared as Houston residents, with a violent-crime rate one-third lower (664.4).

Residents of San Bernardino, with a violent-crime rate of 773, are more frightened (61% “yes, safe”) than either Houstonians or Jacksonville residents (63%).

New Orleans has an even lower violent-crime rate (754.4) and more frightened (59%) residents.

Memphis residents’ fear is more in line with their danger. In line, but not necessarily proportional. Whereas out of 100,000 Memphis residents 1,607.8 will be victims of violent crime in a given year, fifty times as many don’t feel safe walking alone at night.***

“Math is hard” is my shorthand for Americans’ tendency to treat fear as risk, and this Chronicle article typifies the problem. Houston is one of America’s least safe cities (in the top third of the biggest 50, albeit safer than Tulsa, Nashville, or Indy, among others); there are solid statistics to put it there. A Gallup poll showing that Texans aren’t as brave as they like to pretend doesn’t show that Houston is unsafe; it shows that they’re unbrave.

*UCR stats are by police department rather than by metropolitan area. I’m using the major city in the area as a proxy for the entire area. Crime rates are generally lower in the suburbs, so metropolitan-area crime rates are generally lower than city-only crime rates. The image is of the fifty largest cities, sorted by violent crime rate.

**Neither Detroit nor Chicago residents appear to have been included in the survey.

***The fear of victimization is partly self-fulfilling. The more people are afraid to be outside at night, the fewer people are outside at night and the greater the likelihood that any of them will be victims of violent crime.

9 responses to “Math is Hard: Fear is Not Danger”

  1. Fear of crime is driven by two factors:
    1. Crime
    2. Man’s insatiable desire to watch it on the news, watch it on their favorite law & order shows and read about it in their morning paper whist eating Cheerios.
    Nancy Grace, has turned crime into a nightly Melodrama with The misnamed Ms. Grace playing the lead Banshee. Yes, we are terrified of crime…
    And we love it. It’s an undiagnosed Communal Mental illness that every 2 bit local news stations plays to.

    In the meantime while engaging in the Melodrama , real lives are effected and we are wandering closer and closer to a full- fledged police state. I am sure in some sick way many of our Fellow Americans will readily embrace the Police State. That is until they realize its not just entertainment and the bars they are behind are real and not made of chocolate.

    Robb Fickman

  2. Strange notion here Mark, but we must be connected psychically from halfway across the continent! Cab driver was going on about lack of prayer in the school system and a connection to all of the "recently" manifested violent crime. I asked him if he was kidding? "Back in the 30's and 40's, bands of white KKK members could lynch a dozen black men and be safely home in the morning in time for corn flakes.  They also had prayer in the schools, a Catholic didn't run for public office and God help you if you were a Jew." This guy was in his 30's and had no clue.

  3. Basically Americans for the most part have pretty good memories for what the media tells them, but are not very analytical in discerning the truth of matters asserted. It probably explains why so many sell out politicians with media access keep being returned to office and why swing voters stay in the swing instead of being independent and looking for candidates like Mark to vote for when election time rolls around.

  4. LOL…this nation runs on comsumption and fear and we consume out of fear.  We are afraid to drive the crappy car, have a crappy suit, or god forbid, take a non-facebook worthy, crappy vacation.  Fear sells, my friend.

  5. I have a somewhat different view. People self-assess both risk of crime victimization and their vulnerability. If they are both high they are fearful and they want firearms for self-protection. I think this is important in causing the high homicide and attempted homiide rates among the 14 to 25 age group in inner cities.

    In rural areas the risk of victimization is low and the vulverability is high and I think you never be able to take away their guns because if they can't protect themselves nobody else is there to protect them.

      • If we use a simple crime prevention model where we have the:

        1) distribution of crime targets.

        2) the nature of the target (toddler-bank vault)

        3) the distribution of crime target protectors

        4) the distribution of criminals

        Risk depends mostly of the distribution of criminals and vulnerability depends on the nature of the crime tahget and the distribution of crime target protectors.

        An unlocked ammonia tank on a unoccupied farm would be an example of high vulnerability and low risk.

  6. The news blows up so many stories about crime. There's hardly anything good reported on the news. If someone dies, gets robbed, gets hurt or such, then it leads. That produces fear. 

  7. I'm setting myself up for a nasty jinx here, but I am a Houstonian who doesn't experience a great deal of crime fear–not particularly anywhere.

    Interestingly, if you asked me which subdivisions I would be least worried in, Sugarland would make my top 10, easily.

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