Your Odds Are Better Here

I’m pasting here a column I wrote for the Southwest Journal in 2006, when many in Minneapolis were talking about “getting outta here” due to crime. My answer was, and is, “You’ll be just as unsafe from physical harm–or more so–if you move outside the central city of any metropolitan area.” And the stats back that up… Here you are:

[Southwest Journal, May 19, 2006]
All crime is local, part 3
By Luther Krueger

Your odds are better here

I moved to Minneapolis in 1980 to attend the University of Minnesota. One of the first news stories I caught on TV was about a student who went to the window to check out a disturbance happening outside. One of the parties acting up turned to the window, shot and killed the student.
Crime was the least of my concerns then. I faced a 20-credit quarter and the only crime I’d witnessed was that the interest on my student loans had jacked from 3 percent to 5 percent. I probably turned off the TV, headed to the book store, and vowed to not run to the window at the sound of others in some state of disputation, as that was apparently a risky thing to do.

Since 1992, however, crime has been the topic of the day, for nearly every day of my life. Earlier that winter, my youngest brother, Mark, was mugged a couple blocks from home. He nearly escaped without harm or loss, but lost his backpack and wallet when one of the three robbers used a two-by-four to club him on the back of the head. All three suspects were caught, and got some what-for in court. Mark survived, albeit a bit dazed and bruised.

Like some who experience violent crime close to home, I joined my neighborhood’s effort to prevent it. Among other efforts, Lyndale barnstormed to organize block clubs, worked with rental property owners and started a citizen patrol.

Five years later, the Star Tribune printed a lengthy article about the turnaround taking place in Lyndale – “A Neighborhood Lifts Its Fortunes” was the headline. Nine years after that, we just finished our 14th Annual Crime Prevention Walk-a-Thon in Lyndale, reaffirming our commitment to make the neighborhood safer.

Reported crime in Lyndale began to rise a couple years ago, but our network of volunteers has sprung back into nearly the level of action we took in the 1990s. We don’t expect crime will rise much further before it begins to drop again.

Yet during our 14-plus years of success against crime, there’s been one consistent problem. We have suburban friends who won’t visit us. I had an insurance agent who wouldn’t schedule an appointment in my home, insisting he only met clients in his home in a third-tier suburb. And in my job, I hear from people who don’t want to visit Downtown. Stated or left unsaid, the reason is the fear of crime.

When anyone says they are afraid to visit me or come Downtown because of crime, I try to bring them up to speed on the actual risk of being victimized, which is very low. For many, it provides relief to tell them that they’d be plenty safe so long as they didn’t get drunk, didn’t hang out with criminals and didn’t leave their anything out in the open in their cars.

But for many others, one homicide from a bullet intended for someone else, and all bets are off. I’ve always thought that such a reaction was irrational, but couldn’t tell them they’d be safer here than in their bedroom communities.
Now I can. The case can be made that I’m in greater danger of life and limb – especially of dying at the hands of a stranger – by driving to Apple Valley where I attend church, than by spending the rest of my week in “dangerous” Minneapolis.

The ‘random’ act of violence you need to be aware of

Now that the new Central Library is open Downtown, I recommend you check the periodical section and browse through Governing magazine for the year 2002. Check out Alan Ehrenhalt’s “Assessments” columns – they’re all good – and in time you’ll run across his essay, “The Deadly Dangers of Life.”

Ehrenhalt summarizes the research of the University of Virginia’s urban planning professor, William Lucy, co-author of the book, “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs.” In what Ehrenhalt refers to as “an actuarial bombshell,” Lucy shows that if you move out, away from the so-called dangerous inner cities, in actuality you are increasing your risk, ironically and specifically, of being killed by a stranger. The further out you move, the more you increase that risk.

As Lucy points out, more fatal traffic accidents – almost exclusively with strangers – happen outside the central cities of metropolitan areas, per capita, than stranger homicides in the urban core. You’ve heard it before, and it’s true -most accidents happen within a few miles of home.
Many don’t equate traffic deaths with homicide because murder is an intentional, horrific assault. “It’s true,” Ehrenhalt says, “people don’t spend much time worrying about accident rates in prosperous suburbs, but then again, maybe they should. After all, as [Lucy] puts it, you’re dead either way.”

For another perspective, I checked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which ranks the causes of death in the United States. No matter where you live, you are far more likely to die from accidents of any kind – 108,000 plus died in 2004 (of which some 40,000 were vehicle accidents) than from homicide – fewer than 17,000. All murders, not just by strangers, according to the CDC “fell out of the top 15” causes of death in 2003. That’s 37 deaths per 100,000 population for accidents of all kinds compared with fewer than 3 per 100,000 for homicide by stranger.

At this point, it’s all too easy to descend into suburb-bashing: Who’s ready to call our local talk radio jocks and ask how we can help Ham Lake, Blaine, or Red Wing to fix the blunders of their mayors and police chiefs, who failed to clamp down on their far more serious problem of traffic deaths? If you made the choice to “move out” or stay out because it’s so dangerous here, you’d best prepare for the far more “random” act of violence experienced in a car accident than the usually deliberate act of homicide.

Such bashing may be cathartic – but would it be fair? After all, we’ve only looked at homicides vs. traffic deaths. Wouldn’t injuries suffered in aggravated robberies, stabbings and shootings, be more serious? And in just plain numbers, aren’t there more violent crimes in the central cities than there are nonfatal accidents in the suburbs?

Before doing more research, my answers were “probably not, and “I have my doubts.”

Most robberies don’t involve weapons, and the force used with weapons other than guns often doesn’t compare to the force of a car moving at half the speed of a bullet but with 10,000 times the mass. As cops are fond of saying when endorsing the use of bullet-proof vests, “Remember, it’s Mass Times Velocity Squared.” Most robberies happen within a few blocks of active business corners, and even robberies in residential areas afford the opportunity of knocking on doors to get help, and get it fast. But accidents in the suburbs are, ipso facto, farther away from hospitals and have more sparsely dispersed first responders.

What keeps me rooted in Lyndale is the fact that whatever the risk is, I know one can reduce it to the point wherein fear ceases to take over my life. As a community, we reduced crime simply by asking people to get involved. Traffic deaths can be reduced, too – in fact since about 1964, the number of deaths by traffic has stayed relatively constant after decades of population increases. Why? Probably due to one guy (Ralph Nader), his book “Unsafe At Any Speed” and a few dozen individuals who followed through in holding the automobile industry accountable for fixing their “designed-in-dangers.”

One can calculate that a million lives have been saved – saved from a seemingly random event – through some simple changes in our (drivers’) behavior (wearing seat belts), changes to the environment (better roads, traffic control), and making the product itself less dangerous (no sharp dials on the dashboard, a collapsing steering wheel, etc.)

Crime is no different. Traffic accidents aren’t any more random than crime, and anything that isn’t truly random can be controlled, reduced, well-nigh eliminated. Remember, it’s Mass Times Velocity Squared. Once your community reaches that critical mass of volunteers and the velocity of their involvement, there’s no problem that can’t be solved.

Luther Krueger lives in the Lyndale neighborhood and works for the Minneapolis Police Department as a crime prevention specialist in the 1st Precinct.