Every year, the FBI releases statistics about crime in the United States, and the violent crime rate statistics, in particular, catch national attention. Journalists, websites, and publishers pore over the statistics about murder, assault, aggravated assault, rape, burglary and robbery; they compare it to information about a city’s unemployment rate, poverty rate, and median household income; they contrast the crime rate with the national average; and they compile it all into a list of the most dangerous cities in America. These lists never fail to draw a great deal of attention from readers.
And it makes sense that seeing a city’s crime score would be popular: it’s fascinating to know which is the safest city and which is the worst city in America, and more than that, crime statistics are useful when people are considering moving to or visiting a new city, as they’d like to know whether they’ll be in a dangerous place and find themselves in danger of gun violence, burglary, or other crimes.
And yet, it’s important to note that these rankings don’t necessarily tell the whole story when it comes to violent crime. As this article from Bloomberg CityLab points out, any statistics that give you an average violent crime rate could be misleading. A large city with a few areas that have a very high violent crime rate but more areas with a low crime rate could average out to a low overall rate, leading to the illusion that the city is safe. Such a city could rank better on these lists than a city with a moderate amount of crime but also only a moderate population.
The point is that while such rankings are a useful shorthand to get a sense of crime data in a particular city, it’s not a perfect system. A poor ranking doesn’t necessarily mean that a place is the most dangerous city in America, or the worst place to live. Keeping that distinction in mind serves to make this ranking more useful.
With that in mind, let’s talk about what the data does show us. This information is based on crime data for 2019, as that’s the most recent year for which the FBI has released these statistics. The FBI defines violent crime as murder, robbery, assault and aggravated assault, and forcible rape. It also tracks property crime, which it defines as burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.
The ranking here only considers cities with a population of at least 100,000.
Also keep in mind that crime rates are based on the population of the city in question; they are given as rates per a certain number of people, so one armed robbery in a city with a large population is going to look quite different in the statistics than one armed robbery in a city with a small population.
As a point of reference, the national average is 366.7 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
The Most Dangerous City in America
One thing the data shows us is that many people’s preconceived notions about which cities have the highest violent crime rate is wrong. It’s often assumed, possibly because of their portrayal in TV shows and movies, that the highest crime rate in America is to be found in well-known large cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. The truth, however, is that while none of those are quite the safest city in America, none of these is the terribly dangerous city that television and pop culture would suggest.
In actuality, the American city with the highest violent crime rate is Detroit, Michigan. While it has lingered near the top of the list for some time, it’s only been recently that the city has moved into the number one spot.
How dangerous is Detroit?
According to the FBI’s 2019 “Offenses Known to Law Enforcement” report, Detroit saw 13,040 violent crimes in 2019, with a population of 663,502, resulting in a violent crime rate of 1,965 incidents for every 100,000 citizens (well above the national average of 366.7).
- The city saw 275 murders in 2019, giving a homicide rate of 41 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 952 rapes, meaning 143 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
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- There were 2,346 robberies, giving a robbery rate of 354 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 9,467 cases of aggravated assault, giving an aggravated assault rate of 1,427 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
Property crime rates were even higher: there were 28,550 reported incidents of property crime in 2019, leading to a rate of 4,303 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
What parts of Detroit are dangerous?
For years, the most dangerous zip code in the city was 48205, with the crime rates prompting locals to referr to it as “4820-Die.” The area has seen improvement in recent years, but still has a long way to go.
Many parts of the East Side and West Side have not seen the same revitalization and drop in crime rates that certain other parts of the city are seeing; for instance, the Detroit Police Department reports that while crime rates are trending downward across the city, homicide rates are holding steady in some East and West Side districts (though they note that these murders aren’t random—they tend to be committed by people who know the victim, and drugs and poverty play a role).
Is Detroit a good place to live?
While all of these statistics paint an alarming picture, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean that Detroit is a bad place to live; in fact, it has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Residents and fans of Detroit cite the low cost of living, incredible food scene, arts and culture, diversity, and friendliness to start-up companies as reasons to enjoy Detroit. As proof: in 2016, Zagat rated Detroit #13 on its list of “28 Hottest Food Cities,” and U.S. World and News Report called the city one of the top 10 underrated cities for art lovers.
In terms of safety, the suburbs tend to be safer than other parts of the city, and areas like Greektown, Belle Isle, Midtown, West Village, Corktown, and Eastern Market are generally considered desirable.
So, as with all the cities we’ll be discussing, keep in mind that the crime statistics don’t tell the whole story.
Other Cities with High Crime Rates
The following cities rank #2 through #5 in the 2019 FBI violent crime rate statistics (for cities with a population of at least 100,000 people).
#2: St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis has often topped these rankings, but in recent years has been pushed to number two by Detroit. As you’ll see, though, in many of the offenses, the city actually still outranks Detroit.
According to the FBI, St. Louis, Missouri saw 5,792 violent crimes in 2019, out of a population of 300,521. This gives the city a violent crime rate of 1,927 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- The city saw 194 murders in 2019, which results in a homicide rate of 65 incidents for every 100,000 citizens (which puts it higher than Detroit).
- There were 265 rapes, or 88 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 1,475 robberies, meaning a robbery rate of 491 incidents for every 100,000 citizens (also higher than Detroit).
- 3,858 cases of aggravated assault were reported, which means an aggravated assault rate of 1,284 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
Additionally, the city saw 18,582 incidents of property crime, giving a 2019 property crime rate of 6,183 incidents for every 100,000 citizens. This also puts the city higher than Detroit in these particular crimes, showing again that these rankings are not so straightforward as they seem.
#3: Memphis, Tennessee
The birthplace of rock and roll has lingered near the top of the rankings of most dangerous cities in America for some time. In 2019, 12,367 violent crimes were reported to police officers and other law enforcement agencies, out of a population of 650,410. This gives the city a violent crime rate of 1,901 incidents per 100,000 citizens.
- With 190 homicides in 2019, Memphis has a murder rate of 29 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- The city saw 468 rapes that year, meaning 72 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 2,432 robberies, giving a robbery rate of 374 incidents for every 100,000 citizens (a rate that is higher than Detroit’s).
- There were 9,277 cases of aggravated assault in 2019, for an aggravated assault rate of 1,426 incidents for every 100,000 citizens (almost identical to Detroit’s rate).
Memphis also has a higher property crime rate than Detroit; 2019 saw 39,860 incidents of property crime in 2019, meaning a rate of 6,128 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
#4: Baltimore, Maryland
Baltimore saw 11,101 violent crimes reported in 2019; with a total population of 597,239, that means a violent crime rate of 1,859 incidents per 100,000 citizens.
- Baltimore saw 348 murders in 2019, for a murder rate of 58 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 324 rapes reported, leading to a rate of 54 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- Robberies were especially prevalent in Baltimore; 4,856 robberies were reported, giving a robbery rate of 813 incidents for every 100,000 citizens, the highest robbery rate we’ve seen so far.
- 5,573 cases of aggravated assault in 2019 means an aggravated assault rate of 933 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
The city saw 25,748 incidents of property crime in 2019, which gives it a rate of 4,311 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
#5: Springfield, Missouri
Our final city in this ranking is also our second city in Missouri with a high crime rate. There were 2,579 reported incidents of violent crime, which is notable in a city with only 169,235 inhabitants; this gives it a violent crime rate of 1,519 incidents per 100,000 citizens.
- The murder rate was low, with 11 murders leading to a murder rate of 6 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- On the other hand, Springfield has the highest rape rate we’ve seen: with 356 rapes reported, the city has a rape rate of 210 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- The city saw 319 robberies in 2019, meaning a robbery rate of 188 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
- There were 1,885 reported incidents of aggravated assault, for an aggravated assault rate of 1,114 incidents for every 100,000 citizens.
In addition to the highest rate of rapes, Springfield also has the highest rate of property crime: in 2019, there were 13,188 incidents of property crime, which gives it a rate of 7,793 incidents for every 100,000 citizens, the highest on this list.
We hope this article has been helpful in contextualizing some of the information available in the FBI’s crime rate statistics. Crime rate is a complicated issue, with many factors affecting it, from demographics to poverty to climate. But understanding its prevalence and distribution across the United States is one step in the process of combatting it.