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Are Our Cities Safe?


Three California cities, San Jose, Santa Ana and Anaheim, are among the five safest in the country, according to a recent research study of national crime from 1990-99 conducted by Fordham University Professor James J. Hennessy, Ph.D., and doctoral students Amy Tal and Jennice Vilhauer. The study, “Crime in American Cities in the 1990s: Magnitudes and Directions of Change,” was presented in late August at a conference of the American Psychological Association held in San Francisco. In the study, Hennessy examined both violent and property crime statistics in order to rate the cities.

“There is a perception in the country, regularly reported by the media, that the early ’90s was a time of high crime activity and that things had gotten better in the last few years,” said Hennessy, a professor in the division of psychological and educational services in Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. “Our findings show that though there have been improvements in property crime throughout many of the nation’s major cities, there has been far less dramatic improvement in violent crime.” Rounding off the top five safest cities were Virginia Beach, Va., and Colorado Springs, Colo. On the other side of the crime spectrum, Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit were cited as the least safe cities in the country, with all three showing little or no improvement in violent crime throughout the ’90s. “Cities such as Baltimore and Detroit have a very large percentage of people living in poverty,” said Hennessy. “On the other hand, you have a city like San Jose, California, right in the middle of the Silicon Valley, which was becoming more and more affluent throughout the technological boom of the ’90s.

Economic demographics tend to have a significant impact on crime.” According to the study, the greatest improvements in most cities were seen in the reduction of property crime only five cities (Anaheim, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Colo., Austin, Texas, and Honolulu) improved in all crime categories over the course of the decade. In addition, while 31 cities showed improvement in homicide, assault did not change significantly throughout the country in the ’90s. Using data compiled by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, Hennessy applied a psychometric scaling process to analyze the year-to-year changes in crime within and between the 77 largest cities in America. This scaling process is similar to the one used in scoring I.Q. tests, allowing for comprehensive comparisons to be made across time and between cities.

“This research serves as a way of introducing students to numbers that have meaning in the real world and it teaches the students how to approach those numbers from a psychometric perspective,” said Hennessy. “Faculty research, in my opinion, is not independent from teaching.” Throughout the ’90s, New York City made substantial improvements in reducing property crime, according to the study. However, the progress was not nearly as substantial in cases of violent crime, particularly in the categories of robbery and assault. In light of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Hennessy said he suspects that these statistics will require special treatment in the classification process. “It would be unreasonable to include the death tolls from September 11 in the homicide numbers reported for New York and other effected areas in 2001,” said Hennessy. “There will have to be a special classification or category created by the FBI to account for those and any other terrorist related deaths.”


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