Keep Safe in the Big City* (*Offer Not Valid for Some Groups)

This finding in National Geographic shouldn’t be news to anyone:

A study called “Safety in Numbers: Are Major Cities the Safest Places in the United States?” was published this week by the American College of Emergency Physicians. The researchers, led by Sage R. Myers of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that until their work, the overall injury risk in urban areas versus suburban and rural areas had not been fully described.

So Myers’s team attempted to classify deaths from injuries “across the rural-urban continuum.” They looked at data on 1,295,919 deaths from injuries in 3,141 U.S. counties from 1999 to 2006. These deaths were caused by car accidents, shootings, falls, drowning, suffocation, and more.

“Injury mortality increased with increasing rurality,” the scientists wrote. “Urban counties demonstrated the lowest death rates, significantly less than rural counties.”

The researchers found that the risk of death from injury was 1.22 times higher in the most rural counties, compared with the most urban ones.

However, if you asked a hundred Americans to tell you whether a rural town or a big city was safer, most would tell you the former. These kinds of perceptions aren’t just an interesting instance of misinformation or misperception, however; they shape public policy in real ways. Even though crime has been on the downswing for more than two decades in the United States (and for reasons that appear wholly independent of Rudy Giuliani!), urban regimes intent on redevelopment have been deeply invested (often in the literal sense of the word) in attracting affluent white residents to gentrify neighborhoods. It might be interesting to actually research this (gut speculation alert), but it seems to me that creating a perception of action against an inflated threat of crime might be a more effective PR strategy for a mayor than actually publicizing low crime. It ought to be needless to say (but I suppose given recent events that it isn’t), but the presence of black and brown youth in urban areas is a principal contributor to the feelings of unease that can lead white urbanites to an inflated assessment of criminal risk.

Hence Stop and Frisk and its attendant abuses in one of the safest big cities in the nation. Sadly, the exceptions to the rule that cities are safer are now coming at the hands of the nominal protectors of public safety. A more cynical person than I might suggest something else is really being protected.

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