Austin safest big city in Texas? Well, sort of
Mayor cited crime statistics, but they weren’t given context.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler posted a tweet in July stating: “Austin is the safest big city in Texas partly because we know our differences make us a stronger community.”
A reader asked us to check: Is Austin’s safety No. 1?
By email, Adler spokesman Jason Stanford advised that Adler relied on a Texas Monthly “Daily Post” story on FBI crime statistics with a headline declaring Austin the state’s safest city. According to data compiled by the FBI cover-
ing 2015, the story says, Odessa by far had the state’s highest violent crime rate, 1,070 violent crimes reported per 100,000 residents. The FBI classifies as violent crimes murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
“Although Austin’s violent crime rate of 287.7 per 100,000 is slightly up from 2013,” the story says, “it’s grown at a much slower rate than any comparably safe city over the past couple of years, putting Austin in the top spot for safe Texas cities.”
Notably, the story didn’t men-
tion the FBI’s consistent advice against employing its statistics to compare jurisdictions.
Since at least 2011, the FBI has said it “strongly discourages” using FBI Unified Crime Reporting statistics to compare communities. The FBI admonished in May 2017: “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.”
We asked FBI spokesman Stephen Fischer to evaluate Adler’s claim. By email, Fischer passed along elaboration from FBI analyst Loretta Simmons: “Comparisons lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction.”
Another consideration: Whether Austin should be considered a big city akin to Houston, Dallas or San Antonio.
Earlier this year, before rating Half True U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s description of his hometown, El Paso, as the nation’s safest city, we noted that CQ Press — which annually reports on crime rates using FBI statistics — enables adjustments based on population density.
If you use a density of at least 2,720 residents per square mile, Austin and El Paso fall out of its big-city crime rate rankings, leaving San Antonio with the nation’s No. 6 lowest crime rate, Dallas at No. 12 and Houston at No. 17.
Another wrinkle: The rates cited by Texas Monthly weren’t city-specific, instead taking into account metropolitan statistical areas. That is, the touted Austin figures reflected crimes tallied in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties.
That said, the Austin area in 2015 had a lower violent crime rate than any of the state’s other regions, we confirmed in our own sorting of data posted by the FBI. Meantime, the Austin region’s murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate of 2.2 per 100,000 residents ranked third behind the rates for less-populous Wichita Falls (1.3 per 100,000 residents) and Brownsville (1.6 per 100,000 residents).
Our own look into FBI crime reports further showed that in the first half of 2016, Austin (population about 948,000 as of July 2016) ranked 21st among 35 larger cities in the state with a violent crime rate of 209 incidents per 100,000 residents— trailing cities including El Paso (with 195 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants); Laredo (192 violent crimes per 100,000 residents); Midland (186 violent crimes per 100,000 people); and Round Rock (73 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants).
When we alerted Stanford to what we found, he replied by email that Adler compares Austin solely to the state’s biggest cities; he specified Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth.
Adler called Austin the safest big city in Texas.
As we’ve said before — and as experts keep stressing — using crime data to declare one city “safer” than another is fraught with peril. That said, FBI statistics suggest the five-county Austin region in 2015 had a lower violent crime rate than other Texas regions. But El Paso had a lower violent crime rate than Austin in the first half of 2016.
Adler’s claim adds up to a statement that’s partly accurate while lacking important context. We rate it Half True. Contact W. Gardner Selby at 512-445-3644. Twitter: @gardnerselby @politifacttexas
STEVE ADLER Statement: “Austin is the safest big city in Texas.”