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The most dangerous cities in America

With a 32.3 percent poverty rate and nearly 20 percent unemployment, Detroit also has the second-highest violent crime rate in the country.
With a 32.3 percent poverty rate and nearly 20 percent unemployment, Detroit also has the second-highest violent crime rate in the country.AP

 This week, the FBI announced that violent crime dropped 4 percent in 2011, compared to a 5.5 percent drop in 2010. Nationally, the murder rate fell 1.9 percent from 2010, and robbery, forcible rape and assault fell 4 percent each. However, among the cities with the highest violent crimes rates, the trend is not entirely positive.

A 24/7 Wall St. review of 2011 FBI crime data shows that violent crime rose in more than half of the cities that have among the highest rates in the country. In seven of the 10 cities, murder rates increased. In eight of the 10, burglary went up.

Strained budgets are forcing police layoffs that many cities can’t afford to make. More than half of local police departments that responded to a national survey reported cuts in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization of police executives from across the country. Many are cutting police forces through planned layoffs and attrition.

More than half of the cities with the highest violent crime rates are cutting law enforcement budgets and police forces as well. However, unlike the national picture, the situation is worse for these cities, which depend on tax bases that are shrinking faster than most.

The cities with the highest crime rates tend to have particularly high poverty rates, high unemployment and low median income. Two of the worst-off cities, Flint and Detroit, Mich., both have had well-publicized budget woes. Flint was taken over by an emergency city manager after failing to pay its bills in 2011. Detroit is facing similar budget problems and recently came to a temporary oversight agreement with the  state.

While the Police Executive Research Forum notes that budget cuts appear to be slowing in police departments in the United States, most departments are still cutting. According to the group’s April report on local police budgets, this includes many of the cities on this list.

Oakland, Calif., cut its budget by 7 percent in the current fiscal year, with an additional 5 percent cut on the way, according to PERF. In the past two years, the city lost 80 police officers to layoffs and another 108 to attrition. This occurred despite increases in both violent and property crime in 2011.

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Similarly, while the Detroit Police Department reported no cuts for fiscal year 2012, the city is planning a 15 percent cut next year. Detroit also has one of the highest crime rates in the country.

On its website, the FBI cautions against using crime data to compare city violence because rankings tend to be simplistic and ignore factors that influence crime, as well as the different ways crimes are measured and reported. “Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place,” the FBI warns.

Congressional Quarterly, which publishes and analyzes FBI crime statistics each year, referred to crime rate in terms of the “safest” and “most dangerous” cities. However, the publication recently dropped the terms “safe” and “dangerous” due to the concerns of criminologists, Rachel Boba Santos, professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University who wrote the introduction to the Congressional Quarterly Report, told 24/7 Wall St.

Despite these objections, Santos said the data is useful to get a feel for the needs of a particular community and to look at a specific city’s trends on a year-over-year basis. She said the data also is used at the federal level to determine funding resources for different communities, comparing crime rates.

Based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more with the highest rates of violent crime per 1,000 residents. Using the estimated populations and crime incidents from UCR, which measures incidents of eight types of violent and nonviolent crime for 2011, 24/7 Wall St. calculated the incidence of the four types of violent crime per 1,000 persons for that year: murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. In addition to crime data, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed median income and poverty rates for these cities from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2010, the most recent available year. We also included average 2011 unemployment rates for these cities, provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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These are the 10 cities with the highest rates of violent crime.

1. Flint, Mich.

  •  Violent crimes per 1,000: 23.4
  •  Population: 102,357
  •  2011 murders: 52
  •  Median income: $22,672
  •  Unemployment rate: 18.9 percent

According to the FBI examined, no city with more than 100,000 residents had a higher violent crime rate than Flint. In 2011, there were 2,392 incidents of violent crime in Flint, which has a population just above 100,000. That same year, there were just 1,246 violent crimes in all 10 of the safest cities in America -- which have 13 times as many residents as Flint among them. Flint has the second-highest murder rate and the highest rates of aggravated assault, burglary and arson in the nation. According to Flint Mayor Dayne Walling: “there are too many guns on the street and it’s easy for individuals with evil motives to take another human being’s life.” Though the violent crime has long been a problem in Flint, in 2010 the city laid off 20 of its 140 police officers, a decision that diminished both the police’s street presence and response times to crime.

2. Detroit, Mich.

  •  Violent crimes per 1,000: 21.4
  •  Population: 713,239
  •  2011 murders: 344
  •  Median income: $25,787
  •  Unemployment rate: 19.9 percent

Long regarded as one of the poorest cities in the U.S., with a 32.3 percent poverty rate and nearly 20 percent unemployment in 2010, Detroit has the second-highest violent crime rate in the country. Homicide increased by 11 percent in 2011, while robbery and aggravated assault are fourth and second highest in the country, respectively. Nonviolent crime is also an issue, with burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson rates in the top 10 rankings in the country. In response to an 18 percent decrease in the Detroit police budget, which will result in the elimination of 380 positions through attrition and early retirement, the city has begun taking steps to decrease police funding by introducing “Virtual Precincts.” The plan, which closes police stations between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m, requires citizens to report non-emergency crime to a call center, and frees up more patrol officers to respond to 911 emergency calls.

3. St. Louis, Mo.

  •  Violent crimes per 1,000: 18.6
  •  Population: 320,454
  •  2011 murders: 113
  •  Median income: $32,688
  •  Unemployment rate: 11.7 percent

Although the total number of murders in the city has decreased by 31 since 2010, crime in St. Louis did not improve overall last year. Violent crime rates in St. Louis have risen dramatically, from 17.5 to 18.6 cases per 1,000 people. And the city’s murder rate is still the fourth highest in the nation, its robbery rate is the fifth highest in the nation and its aggravated assault rate is third-highest in the nation. Despite these troubling facts, the St. Louis Police Department recently faced potentially drastic budget cuts that may require the elimination of 100 street-patrolling officer positions through attrition.

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4. Oakland, Calif.

  •  Violent crimes per 1,000: 16.8
  •  Population: 395,317
  •  2011 murders: 104
  •  Median income: $49,190
  •  Unemployment rate: 15.6 percent

Oakland historically has been among the most crime-ridden cities in California, with a violent crime rate this year of 16.8 per 1,000 people. There were 14 more murders in 2011 than in 2010, causing Oakland to maintain the ninth-highest murder rate in the country two years in a row. Oakland is the number one city for both robbery and motor vehicle theft rates in the country. Oakland city councilmember Desley Brooks, who wants to allocate $11 million in revenue to the police force, acknowledges the increased violent crime, saying, “we cannot ignore that we have had an increase in violent crime, and so we cannot continue to do the same thing the same way and expect that it’s going to be a different result.”

5. Memphis, Tenn.

  •  Violent crimes per 1,000: 15.8
  •  Population: 652,725
  •  2011 murders: 117
  •  Median income: $37,045
  •  Unemployment rate: 11.1 percent

In 2011, Memphis defied the national trend of declining crime rates in major U.S. cities. The rate of violent crimes per 1,000 people increased, from 15.4 to 15.8. This was the product of increases in murders, which rose from 89 to 117, and aggravated assault incidents, which rose by 100 cases. A rising unemployment rate, which grew 1.2 percent to 11.1 percent in 2011, likely has not helped to reduce criminal behavior. With a current budget deficit of $45 million, Mayor Wharton says he may need to consider “taking boots off the street,” by laying off members of the police force in the near future.

Read the rest of the list of most dangerous cities at 24/7 Wall St.'s Web site.