Math is Hard: Fear is Not Danger

A recent Gallup poll names the Houston, Sugar Land, and Baytown region among the least safe U.S. metro areas, according to resident confidence in the safety of where they live.

Only 63 percent of those polled in the Houston area responded that they felt safe walking alone at night in the area they reside.

* * * * *

Compare that to the 80 percent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area who feel totally secure walking after dark. Texans might scoff that with frigid Minnesota temperatures, criminals would be stymied to commit violent acts in five layers of clothing. Houston must have crime-friendly weather, for the most part.

(Houston Chronicle.)

Maybe. Or Minneapolitans might more realistically scoff that Houstonians are more frightened than their crime rate merits.

The headline on the Chronicle article is Poll of residents puts Houston on list of least-safe U.S. cities. “Most-frightened” would have been more accurate: there is no strong correlation between violent-crime rates and residents’ fear.

Crime Rates By City

According to FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics for 2010*, Houston’s violent-crime rate (as reported by HPD) edges Minneapolis’s (as reported by MPD) only narrowly: 1071.3 violent crimes per 100,000, compared to 1062.3 for Minneapolis. (So much for the “too cold in Minnesota to jack people” theory.)

Jacksonville residents are as scared as Houston residents, with a violent-crime rate one-third lower (664.4).

Residents of San Bernardino, with a violent-crime rate of 773, are more frightened (61% “yes, safe”) than either Houstonians or Jacksonville residents (63%).

New Orleans has an even lower violent-crime rate (754.4) and more frightened (59%) residents.

Memphis residents’ fear is more in line with their danger. In line, but not necessarily proportional. Whereas out of 100,000 Memphis residents 1,607.8 will be victims of violent crime in a given year, fifty times as many don’t feel safe walking alone at night.***

“Math is hard” is my shorthand for Americans’ tendency to treat fear as risk, and this Chronicle article typifies the problem. Houston is one of America’s least safe cities (in the top third of the biggest 50, albeit safer than Tulsa, Nashville, or Indy, among others); there are solid statistics to put it there. A Gallup poll showing that Texans aren’t as brave as they like to pretend doesn’t show that Houston is unsafe; it shows that they’re unbrave.


*UCR stats are by police department rather than by metropolitan area. I’m using the major city in the area as a proxy for the entire area. Crime rates are generally lower in the suburbs, so metropolitan-area crime rates are generally lower than city-only crime rates. The image is of the fifty largest cities, sorted by violent crime rate.

**Neither Detroit nor Chicago residents appear to have been included in the survey.

***The fear of victimization is partly self-fulfilling. The more people are afraid to be outside at night, the fewer people are outside at night and the greater the likelihood that any of them will be victims of violent crime.