“Safest cities” rankings promoted by websites and often touted by local governments have little value as crime analysis, according to a Georgia State University criminologist. One site has acknowledged its ranking is made by non-expert staff as part of a marketing business driving customers to security companies and Amazon.com.

Joshua Hinkle, an associate professor at GSU’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said such rankings are flawed in both method and concept, because most stranger-on-stranger crime is “incredibly concentrated” in small areas of any given city.

“It’s not a matter of bad neighborhoods, much less safe or unsafe cities, [but] more the idea of a bad [or] unsafe street block here and there driving crime rates,” Hinkle said.

On SafeWise.com, the company’s list of Georgia’s “Safest Cities” is paired with security system sales packages.

Two similarly named websites, Safehome.org and SafeWise.com, get a lot of free press around the nation for their annual lists of each state’s “safest cities.” Safe Home’s latest was issued in December and SafeWise’s in January.

Brookhaven issued a press release touting its appearance in the latest list from Safe Home, describing it as a “professional organization” and quoting the police chief about crime-fighting. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul posted a Facebook message noting his city’s appearance on the list, and the Sandy Springs city website includes a 2014 SafeWise list on its “Awards and Honors” page.

Typically unmentioned in news stories and press releases is that the websites offer little or no information about who operates them or creates the rankings. The primary content of both sites is security system reviews. And while they describe complex methods of calculating the rankings, each site produces significantly different lists.

The Georgia top 10 on Safe Home’s latest 25-city list: Peachtree City, Johns Creek, Milton, Kennesaw, Roswell, Alpharetta, Newnan, Sandy Springs, Statesboro and Brookhaven. Dunwoody is Number 18.

Meanwhile, the Georgia top 10 on SafeWise’s 50-city list: Summerville, Milton, Johns Creek, Senoia, Peachtree City, Alpharetta, Tyrone, Dallas, Flowery Branch and Grovetown. Sandy Springs was Number 15, Dunwoody was Number 28, and Brookhaven did not appear at all.

The homepage of Safe Home, at safehome.org, is focused on the review and sales of security systems.

Safe Home’s site lists no staff members or physical location and is registered through Domains By Proxy, a company that allows website owners to remain anonymous. The site broadly describes Safe Home as “an organization dedicated to making communities safer.” But in fine print, it also says, “We are a professional review site that receives compensation from some of the companies whose products we review.” Safe Home did not respond to questions submitted through the site.

SafeWise has the same Utah office suite address as Clearlink, a marketing, sales and technology company whose clients, according to its website, include the security company ADT. According to spokesperson Sage Singleton, SafeWise makes money by earning a portion of some sales made to customers who buy from security system companies or Amazon.com via reviews on the site. The reviews cover both security brands that SafeWise is “affiliated” with and ones that do not have a sales deal, Singleton said.

“It depends on the product and brand if we make money or not,” Singleton said. “We have brand relationships with different alarm companies, but we are not paid by the companies to rank or promote them on our site.”

And what expertise does SafeWise bring to those “Safest Cities” rankings?

“Our data team does not have an educational background in criminology or law enforcement,” Singleton said. “They simply analyzed existing data from the FBI and came up with interesting conclusions based on that data.”

A criminologist’s view

Hinkle, the GSU professor who does have that criminology expertise, used a different description for the Safe Home and SafeWise method: It “isn’t particularly useful.”

Criminology professor Joshua Hinkle.

Both sites publish a complicated method for determining the “safest cities” ranking, involving crime statistics reported to the FBI, crime rate trends, population, demographics and, in Safe Home’s case, crime fear perceptions. Safe Home’s method gives more weight to murder, rape and assault than to burglary and vehicle theft. SafeWise says it is also focused on violent crime: “We evaluated and ranked each city based on its violent crime rate. If there was a tie, we also considered the number of property crimes.”

Hinkle said that FBI-collected crime statistics are a solid starting point, though some categories of crime, such as rape, have underreporting problems. But he questioned the weighting toward some types of violent crime.

“I’d also argue that using aggravated assault, rape [and] murder isn’t necessarily the best way to measure the safety level of cities,” he said. “Assaults, rapes and murders are largely committed by people the victims know — friends, family and acquaintances —rather than being random acts in the community.”

Safe Home pitches its ranking as advice on finding a safe place to live. But, Hinkle said, people making a move should be most interested in “more random crimes like street robbery and residential burglary.”

The bigger problem with “safest cities” lists, Hinkle said, is that crime is not citywide.

“We have tons of research evidence supporting the notion of the ‘law of crime concentrations’ — essentially we know that crime is incredibly concentrated in a few small areas,” he said. “… For instance, studies in a variety of nations and cities have consistently found that between 3 to 6 percent of addresses in a city account for 50 percent of the crimes reported to police, and 20 percent of places generate 80 percent of the crime.

“Thus, comparing cities isn’t particularly useful,” Hinkle said, because living on a “bad” block in a top-ranked city could be more dangerous than living most places in a lower-ranked city.

Hinkle said that people seeking crime information for their city have a better online option: the local governments’ own crime-mapping sites.

He said that during his latest move, he used the DeKalb County Police Department’s CrimeTrac site to look at crimes reported on the blocks immediately around addresses where he considered moving.

“That’s much more useful and informative than any rankings of safe cities or even neighborhoods,” he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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