Sandy Springs has appeared on yet another “safest cities” website list, this time for purportedly “keeping children safe,” and a criminologist is once again saying the ranking is useless.
SafeWise.com is one of two websites that get a lot of free press around the country for publishing “safest cities” lists, on which local cities frequently appear. Last year, Utah-based SafeWise acknowledged to the Reporter that its lists are made by staff members with no expertise in criminology or law enforcement as part of a marketing business that drives customers to security companies and Amazon.com.
Josh Hinkle, an associate professor at Georgia State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, said at the time that SafeWise’s ranking method was not an effective way to calculate a resident’s risk for random crime.
Now SafeWise is back with a list of “The 50 Safest Cities to Raise a Child in 2019,” on which Sandy Springs appears at number 36. The list was widely promoted with a press release quoting its author, Kaz Weida, and identifying her as a “security analyst.” The press release already resulted in one uncritical story, featuring a quote from Weida and a local mayor, in a New Jersey newspaper.
However, the report itself describes Weida only as a parent who “spends her time reviewing products,” and SafeWise spokesperson Krystal Rogers said she is a freelance writer who has no degree in criminology or law enforcement.
Weida did not respond to a comment request before this article’s publication, but in written messages sent via Twitter afterward, she said she did not write the promotional quote that identified her as a security analyst. She said she has “a degree in education and several years of experience as a journalist writing pieces about home safety, crime, politics, parenting and community policing.” She also characterized the Reporter’s scrutiny of her qualifications as a “security analyst” as a form of personal criticism that was “despicable” and “truly off-base and irresponsible.”
Weida did not directly respond to Hinkle’s criticisms of the report, but said she was not responsible for the method or the data. “I’m not involved in developing the methodology. I simply receive the data and a creative brief and craft the piece,” she said.
The method SafeWise says it used to create the ranking involved comparing crime rates, graduation rates per capita, and the number of sex offenders per capita who are registered as living in the city.
Hinkle, the GSU criminologist, said that method is based on a false assumption about citywide crime rates and that the sex offender registry is a “poor measure” of child molestation risk.
“Thus, I see no utility to this list,” said Hinkle.
Rogers, the Safewise spokesperson, made no specific response to Hinkle’s criticisms, instead saying generally that crime is “a complex topic” and that SafeWise writes about “safety trends.”
“The bottom line is that we want people to talk about and think about safety — if we get a conversation started that can help increase that everyday awareness and inspire ‘safety as a lifestyle,’ then we’re on the right track,” Rogers said. “We appreciate the conversation and will continue to evolve our process. We are constantly striving to provide more relevant and helpful information and resources, and we are learning from thoughtful inquiries such as this.”
When asked why SafeWise doesn’t simply hire criminologists to conduct valid studies, and whether the company intends to correct misinformation, Rogers replied, “Thank you for the suggestion. If a mistake is discovered in the data, we are happy to correct it.”
Hinkle said the entire premise of “safe cities” and comparing cities to each other makes no sense in terms of crime rates and risks. That is because street crime is highly localized.
“It’s pretty moot to look at citywide safety when we know crime is highly concentrated at the microplace level… [which means] street blocks and lots of block-to-block variation in crime even in ‘bad neighborhoods,’” Hinkle said.
Another overall flaw in SafeWise’s method, Hinkle says, is the use of violent crime statistics. That’s because most assaults, rapes and murders are committed by a family member or acquaintance of the victim, not a stranger whom one might randomly encounter in a city.
In the new list, the use of sex offender data has the same problem, Hinkle said, because the majority of child abuse and molestation also is committed by family members and acquaintances. And SafeWise appears to have counted all registered sex offenders, not just those convicted of child molestation, when in fact, “most of those aren’t pedophiles,” Hinkle said.
For useful information on finding a safe place to live in terms of avoiding random crime, Hinkle said, the best places to go are the websites of local police departments, which usually offer a map of recent crimes. On those maps, anyone can see where there are local concentrations of random crime, such as burglaries and robberies. The Sandy Springs Police Department uses the site crimereports.com.
“Finding a safe street in a safe neighborhood is what matters, not picking a safe city,” said Hinkle.
Update: This story has been updated with comment and biographical information from report author Kaz Weida.