Special Report

Cities Where Crime Is Soaring

finger printThe United States is becoming safer, with crime levels dropping nearly every year. Between 1991 and 2013, the U.S. violent crime rate has fallen by nearly 52%. Since 2009, the nation’s violent crime rate has declined from 429.4 to 367.9 incidents per 100,000 people, a decrease of 14.3%.

While the prevalence of violent crime — which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — has declined in many of the nation’s metropolitan areas, in some regions it has increased. In Bismarck, North Dakota, the violent crime rate grew by nearly 92.4% — from 206.6 cases per 100,000 people in 2009 to 397.6 in 2013. Based on figures published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), these are the metropolitan areas with the greatest increases in the violent crime rate.

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It remains difficult to precisely determine the crime levels in particular areas. And the exact relationship between crime and the economy is similarly unclear. The relationship is complex and it can go both ways, said John Roman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “When the economy is bad, people typically stay home more, and because they’re home, their house is less likely to be burgled.” It is also possible that “when the economy gets better and people have more money and are out-and-about more, you increase the targets of violence.”

In some of the metro areas where violent crime rose the most, the economy has been especially strong. For example, in Bismarck, North Dakota, the economy grew as a result of the regional oil boom. Two other metro areas, Columbus, Indiana, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, have also experienced strong growth in recent years. All three metro areas had unemployment rates far below the national rate of 7.4% in 2013.

However, in other areas with rising violent crime rates several economic factors were quite poor. In four of the 10 metro areas, for example, more than 8% of workers were unemployed in 2013, well above the national rate. The 2013 median household income was also less than the national figure of $52,250 in four of the cities where crime has been soaring.

One of the hidden factors that could be driving up crime rates in areas with thriving economies may be shifting local demographics, Roman explained. “The biggest predictor of committing a criminal act is being young, male, and relatively low-skilled. In boom towns, you often get a bunch of young men with low skill who come in to fill construction and energy jobs.” As a result, it is not organized criminals driving up crime rates as much as it is likely younger men struggling to find work, Roman said.

Generally, aggravated assault was the most reported violent crime in 2013, accounting for more than 62% of overall incidents. This was especially the case in many of the areas that led the nation with soaring violent crime rates. While the number of aggravated assaults fell across the nation between 2009 and 2013, all of these areas had a dramatic increase in the assault rate.

Aside from changing demographics, another factor that may affect crime statistics may be the area’s reporting trends. According to Roman, if police signal they are cracking down on crimes such as domestic violence, they may be able to encourage more people to report a crime. Policing strategies are among the most important factors, according to Roman. Police departments need to be “working with the community and not just policing it.” This means implementing policies that work towards a “less segregated and more integrated [community] with more opportunities for more people.”

Based on figures published by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, 24/7 Wall St. identified the 10 metropolitan statistical areas where crime rates rose the most between 2009 and 2013. In order to be considered, areas had to retain the same geographic boundaries during the period covered, and they had to retain consistent reporting practices. We reviewed annual unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for 2009 and 2013. We also considered data from the Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey on household income, educational attainment rates, and poverty.

These are the 10 U.S. cities where violent crime is soaring.

9. Sioux Falls, SD
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 37.7%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 211.9
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 291.8
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 3.0

In 2009, there were 212 violent crimes reported per 100,000 people in the Sioux Falls metro area, one of the lower rates nationwide. By 2013, the rate had risen to 292 violent crimes per 100,000 people, an increase of nearly 38% — the 10th largest increase among U.S. metro areas. City officials last year attributed part of this spike in crime to population growth. Yet, this does not fully explain the higher crime rate. Some crimes are also becoming more common than others. Methamphetamine-related crimes, for example, have risen dramatically in the area since 2009. Despite the increase in crime rate in recent years, however, the city remains significantly safer when compared to the national violent crime rate of 367.9 per 100,000 people, and the local economy is relatively strong. Just 3.3% of the area’s workforce was unemployed in 2013, one of the lower rates nationwide.

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8. Crestview-Fort Walton Beach-Destin, FL
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 40.2%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 294.8
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 413.2
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 7.0

While the metros with soaring crime rates were not necessarily the most dangerous areas in the United States, the Crestview-Fort Walton metro area had one of the higher crime rates in the nation. There were 413.2 violent crimes reported per 100,000 metro area residents in 2013, versus the national rate of 367.9. As in most cities with rising crime rates, Crestview’s 2013 unemployment rate of 5.2% — down from 7.1% in 2009 — was well below the national rate of 7.4%. Yet, the area’s strong economic growth since the recession did not seem to have helped fight rising crime rates. A heavy reliance on military-dependent industries may make the city more vulnerable to government cutbacks, which could make addressing the area’s soaring crime rate more difficult in the future.

7. Madera-Chowchilla, CA
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 46.6%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 454.1
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 665.7
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 13.0

Madera had a violent crime rate of 665.7 per 100,000 people in 2013, a 46.6% increase from 2009, as well as the 15th highest crime rate among all metro areas. Financial distress among residents may have contributed to the area’s high crime rates. Madera had a median household income of less than $40,000 in 2013, considerably lower than the national median of $52,250. Nearly 24% of residents also lived in poverty that year, versus less than 16% of all Americans. A poor job market is partly to blame for the low incomes, as more than 11% of the workforce was unemployed in 2013, one of the highest unemployment rates compared to other large urban areas. Madera metro area residents were also poorly educated compared to other areas reviewed. In 2013, only 70% of adults had at least a high school diploma and just 13% had at least a bachelor’s degree, both some of the lowest rates nationwide.

6. San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles, CA
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 48.3%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 260.5
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 386.2
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 5.0

Reported violent crimes in the San Luis Obispo area rose from 260.5 per 100,000 residents in 2009 to 386.2 per 100,000 in 2013, a 48.3% increase. The increase in violent crime was driven primarily by an increase in aggravated assaults, which grew by nearly 71% between 2009 and 2013 to 316.8 per 100,000 residents. Other types of crime, such as property crime, did not increase over the five-year period. The relationship between crime rates and an area’s economy is disputed among experts. In the case of San Luis, while the violent crime rate increased dramatically, the area’s unemployment rate fell. Between 2009 and 2013, the jobless rate fell 2.3 percentage points to 6.7%, a lower unemployment rate than the national rate of 7.4% in 2013.

5. Gadsden, AL
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 64.5%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 353.7
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 581.7
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 8.0

While the aggravated assault rate fell by more than 12% across the nation between 2009 and 2013, it more than doubled in the Gadsden metro area to more than 380 such crimes per 100,000 people. The spike in aggravated assaults accounted for the bulk of the violent crime growth of 64% in the area. Financial burdens likely made tackling crime more difficult for city officials, and some argue may have increased the level of crime. A typical household earned less than $40,000 in 2013, one of the lowest median household incomes nationwide. Also, just 16.2% of area adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, much lower than the national rate of 29.6%. Gadsden’s unemployment rate of 6.5%, on the other hand, was lower than the national rate of 7.4% in 2013.

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4. Longview, WA
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 67.1%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 212.0
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 354.3
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 1.0

While just one murder was reported per 100,000 people in the Longview area — one of the lowest rates nationwide — rape was reported far more frequently than in other metro areas. There were nearly 100 rapes reported per 100,000 people in 2013, the fifth highest rate nationally, and roughly four times the national rate of 25.2 rapes per 100,000 residents. As in several other cities where crime is soaring, Longview had a relatively high unemployment rate, at 10.1% in 2013. Residents also had relatively low educational attainment rates. Less than 16% of area adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2013, one of the lowest rates, and almost half the national rate of nearly 30%.

3. Columbus, IN
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 71.1%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 108.0
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 184.8
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 5.0

The violent crime rate in Columbus increased by more than 70% between 2009 and 2013, the fourth highest spike in the country. However, the area is still relatively safe by many measures. Even after the increase, 184.8 violent crimes were reported per 100,000 residents, one of the lower rates in the nation and less than half the national violent crime rate of 367.9 per 100,000 Americans. In addition, the property crime rate in the Columbus metro area fell by 3%. While most cities with rising crime rates also tended to be relatively poor areas, Columbus had a median household income of $52,505, in line with the 2013 national figure.

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2. Medford, OR
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 80.4%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 195.1
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 352.0
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 4.0

Nearly half of Southern Oregon residents believed crime to be the most important issue in the area, according to a survey in late 2013. In fact, crime was considered a worse problem than the area’s unemployment rate, which in Medford was still hovering around 10% in 2013. Increasingly, gangs have become a major presence in the area, using Interstate 5, which runs through Medford, to transport drugs. Between 2009 and 2013, reported violent crimes rose by 80%, and property crimes rose by nearly 58%, both the third largest increases in the country. Aggravated assault, which accounted for more than 70% of violent crimes in the Medford area in 2013, contributed significantly to the rise in violent crime. Between 2009 and 2013, the aggravated assault rate grew by nearly 70% to 252 per 100,000 residents, the eighth largest increase among all metro areas.

1. Bismarck, ND
> 5-year increase in violent crime rate: 92.4%
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2009): 206.6
> Violent crime per 100,000 (2013): 397.6
> Murders per 100,000 (2013): 3.0

While economic prosperity often helps to lower crime rates, this was not the case in Bismarck. Although wages in Bismarck have grown significantly since North Dakota’s oil boom began, the massive influx of residents may have also strained local police. The area’s unemployment rate of just 2.6% in 2013 was one of the lowest nationwide. And a typical household earned nearly $65,000 that year, one of the highest figures. Yet, crime has been on the rise. Drunk driving, which is not even part of the violent and property crime rates reviewed, rose 81% across the state between 2009 and 2013, and Bismarck has reported a similarly high incidence of drunk driving. In addition, while the murder rate declined between 2009 and 2013 in Bismarck, the aggravated assault rate more than doubled during those years, from 158.0 per 100,000 people in 2009 to 319.5 per 100,000 residents in 2013.

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Correction: Due to a data processing error, an earlier version of this article identified Monroe, MI and later Monroe, LA as areas where crime is soaring. In fact, neither Monroe, MI nor Monroe, LA should have been included. 

Additional correction: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article noted that violent crime in the Bismark, ND metro area grew 160% between 2009 and 2013. In fact, the crime rate grew 92.4%. While this was correct in the Bismark summary, it was incorrect in the introduction.

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