Questioning characterizations of the U.S.-Mexico border as unsecured, El Paso’s county judge, Veronica Escobar, said: “When elected representatives from our own state make claims that our border is not secure, they are ignoring the facts. When you look at El Paso, Texas, for example, we are the safest city of our size in the nation.”
Escobar’s reference to El Paso as the nation’s safest like-sized city reminded us of state Sen. José Rodríguez’s statement in September 2011 that El Paso had been named America’s “Safest Large City.” We rated that claim Mostly False; El Paso had low crime rates, but only a local press release had named it the nation’s “safest” large city — and its Police Department dropped the label.
Rodriguez had attributed El Paso’s “safest” status to an annual report by CQ Press listing crime statistics for cities with a population of more than 500,000. Similarly, Escobar relied on the 2013 CQ Press rankings for her statement, her aide told us.
The city of El Paso issued a press release on Feb. 5 stating that for the third straight year, El Paso had the lowest crime-rate ranking among U.S. cities with populations over 500,000 and citing the 2013 CQ Press report.
Indeed, El Paso, home to more than 660,000 residents in 2011, topped CQ’s 2013 “Lowest Crime Rate” list among 33 cities with 500,000 residents or more.
Neither El Paso’s press release nor the CQ Press summary identified the border city as the nation’s “safest” big city. In CQ Press’ case, that’s on purpose, a spokeswoman told us by email. Before the report’s 2009 edition, Marina Ilishaev said, CQ Press used “safest” and “dangerous” to describe those cities with the lowest and highest rankings by its analyses, but those terms “are no longer used because perceptions of safety and danger are just that — perceptions. The data analyzed here are reported crime and population, which together constitute only two factors considered when determining safety or risk of crime victimization.”
CQ Press says its crime-rate rankings were derived from totaling each city’s violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault as tallied by the FBI plus the number of property crimes of burglary and motor vehicle theft, all in 2011. Then it followed a “multistep process,” CQ Press says, in which each city’s reported crimes in each category were compared with nationally reported crimes per 100,000 population rate and “indexed to create a summary score and ranking across” the six areas of reported violent and property crime.
Its overall approach — particularly weighting each type of crime the same — concerns criminologists such as Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who told us that the crime-rate rankings are “highly suspect as true indicators of safety.”
Mitchell Chamlin, a Texas State University criminal justice professor, said city-level crime rate comparisons are not particularly meaningful. “Crime is local,” Chamlin wrote, and “most criminals work in a very small radius,” typically smaller than a city.
Separately, the FBI has cautioned against using its statistics to develop rankings. In a 2011 online post, “Pitfalls of Ranking,” the agency said, “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.” Its Unified Crime Report “statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale,” the FBI said.
Blumstein noted that anyone can estimate the relative safety in cities by calculating rates for each crime directly from the FBI’s statistics.
We gave it a try by using the FBI statistics for 2011 to compare rates of violent crime, which includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. We looked at crime rates for El Paso and nine other cities of 500,000 or more population listed in the 2013 CQ Press report as having the “lowest crime rate” rankings.
In our sampling, El Paso had the fourth-lowest violent crime rate in 2011, at 431 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. Austin (430), San Diego (388) and San Jose (335) had lower rates.
Our ruling: Escobar said El Paso is the “safest city of our size in the nation.” This conclusion draws on the latest CQ Press crime-rate rankings, which suggest El Paso has the lowest crime-rate ranking of 33 cities with 500,000 residents or more, a conclusion drawing on 2011 crime statistics gathered by the FBI. But “safest” is not that simple. It gave us pause, too, that in 2011, other cities had lower rates of violent crime than El Paso.
We rate this claim Half True.