Overstated: Crime statistics misapplied to paint inaccurate picture

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Fairbanks and Anchorage are not two of the most dangerous cities in the United States for women.

We make that declaration despite a Forbes magazine article claiming Anchorage is No. 2 and Fairbanks is No. 3 on a list of the 10 most dangerous cities in the country for women.

No one can deny that the rate of sexual violence in our community and our state is an extreme problem, but the FBI statistics do not tell the story and do not present an accurate picture of the situation in Alaska.

The Forbes report is based on the misuse of data from the FBI Uniform Crime Report. 

The FBI warns against using these statistics to create lists ranking the most dangerous cities in the country.

That’s not just because politicians, editorial writers and chambers of commerce always complain about the lists, but also because the FBI recognizes that the data are not solid enough to justify any such conclusions.

The FBI says these rankings are “merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region or other jurisdiction.”

“Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents,” the FBI said.

Until the variables are analyzed and reviewed, it is impossible to make meaningful comparisons among cities and to proclaim that any place is safer or more dangerous than any other place.

The Forbes article said of Fairbanks: “For a metro of just over 97,000, an incredibly high rate of rape (more than double the national metropolitan average) lands Fairbanks among the top three most dangerous cities for women in the United States at 191 reported rapes per 100,000 residents.”

One problem with these statistics is the way in which the data is collected. The FBI numbers for the Fairbanks area are based entirely on Fairbanks city police numbers. Two-thirds of the area’s 97,000 people live outside the city, though, and the rape rate is likely much lower in the surrounding area.  

The number of rapes per 100,000 people, therefore, in our community of about 100,000 people is not 191.

That is an extrapolation of the number from the city, and it creates just the sort of misleading perception about which the FBI warns people.

The number of rapes in the city is unacceptable and we are not suggesting that it be ignored or downplayed. The city reported 70 forcible rapes in 2010, which is more than one per week.

We don’t have accurate statistics for the entire Fairbanks area because the Alaska State Troopers do not report their data to the FBI that way.

This is a problem that can be corrected.

We urge the governor, the Department of Public Safety and the troopers to see to it that the state data is broken down by municipality. Providing the FBI with better information will not prevent publications from misusing statistics, but it can give us a more accurate statistical review.

That is an essential step in focusing community and state attention and resources on the severe problem of sexual violence in our society.

We can’t stop anyone from misusing crime statistics, but we can do more to reduce the crime rate.

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