Gerber: Headlines on state's violent crime do not tell whole story

Gerber: Headlines on state's violent crime do not tell whole story

October 13th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

The headlines screamed from websites and the pages of newspapers last week: "FBI: Tennessee most dangerous US state." "TN has nation's highest violent crime rate." "The most dangerous U.S. state is ... Tennessee?"

Those were all real headlines, based on an FBI study that found that Tennessee has the highest per capita violent crime rate of the nation's 50 states. (Washington, D.C.'s was higher).

That means 643 people out of every 100,000 in Tennessee have been victims of violent crime, which includes murder, aggravated assault, forced rape and robbery.

Tennessee was in the top 10 for murders and was first for aggravated assaults.

Unsettling for sure.

People are interested in crime. We want to know why people act violently; we want to know if we're safe. Not surprisingly, the story on the FBI numbers racked up the page views at timesfreepress.com, and it was listed on the Tennessean.com's list of its five most popular stories.

But here's the thing about statewide or nationwide stats: They don't really tell you if you're safe. They don't tell you how much crime occurs in your community.

"People in Tennessee were more likely to be victims of violent crime than residents of any other state in the nation, according to FBI statistics," a story posted on the Tennessean's website stated.

Statistically that might be true. But you're obviously a lot safer if you live in, say, Dunlap, than if you live in inner-city Memphis, which skews the state's crime numbers greatly. Memphis was fifth worst in the country for violent crime rates, according to the FBI.

So to really understand the numbers, you must examine them on a local level, not statewide. And you must try to compare apples to apples -- or big cities to other big cities and smaller cities to other smaller cities.

That's what Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon did last week. He crunched the FBI data, taking it down to the city level to compare Chattanooga to similar cities. He found:

• Chattanooga has the fourth-highest violent crime rate among cities in the state that have populations of more than 50,000. That rate is 993.9 per 100,000 people -- behind Memphis at 1,750, Jackson at 1,478 and Nashville at 1,216 per 100,000.

• Chattanooga is fourth-highest for violent crimes among the 31 mid-sized cities in the surrounding states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina and Virginia. (Brogdon identified mid-sized cities as having populations of 100,000 to 350,000; Chattanooga's population is 170,136). Ahead of Chattanooga in that category are St. Louis, Birmingham and Little Rock, Ark.

Headlines about violent crime are always going to grab attention. But it's our job to give you a well-researched story that goes beyond the face-value of the numbers. It's our goal -- and our mandate -- to not just report the numbers but dig behind them to provide more depth and more information about your community.

And don't worry if you didn't care for all the headlines about violent crime in your state. By the end of the week, another headline was popping up on websites: "Tennessee ranks 8th for fatal drug overdoses."

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.