Is Tukwila really the most dangerous city in America?

Gateway to the most dangerous city in America? (Photo by Ian Terry)
Gateway to the most dangerous city in America? (Photo by Ian Terry)

Last month the home security website Safewise ranked the “Top 30 most dangerous cities in America.”

To the surprise of some local residents, Seattle suburb Tukwila was at the top of the list, moving up from its “second most dangerous city in America” ranking last year.

The article based the ranking on FBI data tracking “the number of reported violent crimes (aggravated assault, murder, rape, and robbery) and property crimes (burglary, arson, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft) in each city,” adjusted per capita.

The author, Alexia Chianis wrote that her team didn’t include cities with fewer than 10,000 residents, or those that “failed” to submit a complete crime report to the FBI (though the FBI on its website describes submission as voluntary).

Tukwila city officials have disputed the report, and say they’re not sure why the Salt Lake City-based company keeps disseminating “inaccurate” information about their town.

“I want to be clear that this is a company that sells home security systems, taking data from the FBI in a way that the FBI says not to do it, and spinning it in this way,” said Rachel Bianchi, communications manager for the Tukwila Mayor’s Office, “so I don’t agree that this is a report.”

Safewise advertises itself as “your source for home security and safety advice” — but is supported by ads from select home security providers like ADT, Protect America and LifeShield.

Bianchi referred to a warning on the FBI website that says: “Individuals using these tabulations are cautioned against drawing conclusions by making direct comparisons between cities. Comparisons lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. ”

While the report has already sparked a conversation in Tukwila and surrounding communities, when I asked if there will be policy changes based on the report Bianchi responded emphatically, “There won’t be!”

What Safewise got wrong

Bianchi says the main problem is that the ‘report’ is based on per capita data, which is misleading in Tukwila’s case.

“We have 19,000 residents in the City of Tukwila roughly — a small city residentially, ” Bianchi said, “During the day, we have between 150,000 and 200,000 people in the city, because we are a large employment and retail hub…so to take our nighttime population and use it for other statistics does not make sense.”

She said it is like incorrectly concluding Tukwila residents each spent over $105,000 last year, based on the two billion dollars in taxable sales in the city in 2015. Or concluding that Tukwila residents, including newborn babies, attended 51 movies per capita last year, more than 13 times the North American average.

In both cases, the stats are skewed by people coming from outside the city to visit SouthCenter mall and other Tukwila retail attractions, where they spend money, see movies, and yes, sometimes commit crimes.

The Hermens family shopping at the Seafood City Supermarket inside Southcenter Mall. The mall draws thousands of people from Seattle and surrounding areas to Tukwila everyday. (Photo by Ian Terry)
The Hermens family shopping at the Seafood City Supermarket inside Southcenter Mall. The mall draws thousands of people from Seattle and surrounding areas to Tukwila everyday. (Photo by Ian Terry)

“Fluctuation in population from day to night is not something we factored into our rankings, but the criticism is fair,” Safewise Community Outreach person Clair Jones responded in an email. She stopped short of apologizing, but did say they’d look for ways to account for the daytime/nighttime population in future lists.

“We’re always open to being better, and we really appreciate the conversation that the piece has started,” she wrote.

Kevin Poole, a resident in nearby Renton, called the Safewise report “hysteria-inducing” and “racist” in a post on Dailykos.com. He pointed out that the most dangerous list was mostly lower income and racially diverse communities, while the company’s “Safest Cities in America” list, includes mostly “wealthy New England townships and other small, rich, and predominantly white communities.”

Tukwila does have most diverse school-district in the nation, according to an oft-cited project by The New York Times, which attributed the diversity mostly to recent immigration.

Everybody likes lists’

Tukwila Council Member De’Sean Quinn said officials are proud of the city’s transparency in sharing crime data with the FBI, but they have no control how other organizations might use it.

“Everybody likes lists, which is great, and this is an opportunity to advertise and market. But Tukwila being number one [in crime] is inaccurate,” Quinn said, “They are lumping categories together. We are relatively similar to other similar areas even when it comes to shoplifting.” 

In response, Safewise’s Jones wrote, “Weighting the severity of a type of crime is a tricky thing, especially when considering overall safety. We chose as a team not to weight any individual crime over another, and to take them all into consideration when ranking the cities for our list.”

But when talking about how “dangerous” a city is, treating property crime the same as violent crimes just seems wrong.

“I guarantee you Tukwila is not the most dangerous city in the United States. We are very tight-knit community.”

Jones didn’t respond to my question about Tukwila residents who have taken advantage of Safewise products or service in response to the list. But she did suggest they invest in an at-home alarm system or car alarm, “since the vast majority of the crime in their area is property crime.”

Quinn, who seemed not so much bothered by the “adverse effects” that the FBI warns of such reports, said hopefully that, “the report, even if inaccurate, might spark some conversation.”

“We are very committed to public safety,” Quinn said. “We have our issues… but I guarantee you Tukwila is not the most dangerous city in the United States. We are very tight-knit community.”

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