Austin safest big city in Texas? Well, sort of

Mayor cited crime sta­tis­tics, but they weren’t given con­text.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - METRO & STATE - By W. Gard­ner Selby wgselby@states­man.com

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.

Our rul­ing

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.”

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