America's crime rates have vastly improved in recent decades: The last quarter century witnessed unprecedented declines in both violent and property crimes. Yet, despite these positive developments, the general public remains deeply concerned about safety and criminality within their own communities.
In fact, Americans consistently express that crime is increasing throughout the country, despite statistical evidence to the contrary. Perhaps these sentiments reflect the inconsistent nature of improvement: In many inner cities, crime remains entrenched. Or maybe public fears are fueled by the media, with crime stories appearing everywhere from the nightly news to Netflix. Whatever the case, public opinion on crime seems detached from hard data.
We set out to create a definitive assessment of crime in America, using data from the FBI's 2017 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. Incorporating a range of relevant statistics, such as crime rates and law enforcement officers per capita, we've uncovered the most dangerous states in the union, both overall and for specific crimes. To see how your state actually stacks up against others when it comes to crime, keep reading.
Where Each State Stands
According to our multifaceted crime calculations (see our methodology for more details), New Mexico earned the unwelcome distinction of being the most dangerous state. Local experts assert that much of the state's criminal activity is centered in Albuquerque – home to nearly half of the state's property crime. Conversely, crime analysts in second-ranked Louisiana suggest that the state's troubles cannot be attributed to a single city. Even without New Orleans' distressingly high murder rate, Louisiana would still lead the nation in homicides. Indeed, Mississippi's presence near the top of the ranking suggests crime can flourish in rural settings as well as urban ones, a theme we'll see repeated elsewhere in our analysis.
Geography of Brutality
Of course, crime rates cannot be analyzed in isolation. To gain a better sense of safety across the country, it's helpful to incorporate statistics pertaining to clearance rates to gauge how often crimes are actually solved. Additionally, historical figures present a more balanced picture of how violent crime is evolving in each region: For example, the South has the highest murder rate per capita, but did boast the most year-over-year improvement in that category in 2017. Some regions with admirable statistics seem to be improving further. The Northeast had the lowest violent crime rate overall, the best clearance rate and the greatest drop in violent crime in 2017.
Additionally, these regional analyses reveal some concerning outliers. For example, the West was the only region in which robberies and murders increased from 2016 to 2017, and the area experienced a simultaneous rise in rapes. In the Midwest, major challenges stifled crime-solving: For every type of offense except rape, clearance rates consistently lagged behind those of other regions. Yet, experts say low clearance rates are a national crisis rather than local issues of incompetence. Law enforcement officials nationwide say witnesses have grown resistant to cooperating with police in recent years, a deficit in trust that slows crime-solving efforts.
Violent Offenses in Various States
While no community is entirely spared from violent crime, New England proved relatively peaceful: Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire had the lowest rates per capita. Some Northern states seemed similarly blessed with relatively little violence: Idaho and North Dakota ranked among the five states with the fewest murders and robberies per 100,000 residents. One might attribute these findings to population density: Many of these states have relatively few residents distributed over largely rural terrain, potentially making criminal interactions less likely.
Yet, rural states could prove relatively dangerous as well: Alaska had the highest rates of rape and aggravated assault per capita, and it ranked second for violent crime overall. Frustrated with these ongoing threats in their state, Alaska residents have taken to patrolling the streets themselves. Washington, D.C., also ranked at or near the top of several categories, including murders, robberies, aggravated assaults, and violent crime overall. Despite these concerning statistics, local authorities note their area's crime rates improved steadily between 2012 and 2017, citing better technologies and expanded officer training.
Relative to violent crime, criminal offenses against property occur far more frequently – and get solved much less often. Thankfully, however, every region of the country witnessed a decline in property crimes between 2016 and 2017, with particular improvement in the area of burglaries. In the South, for example, burglaries dropped by 8.2 percent, and property crime declined 3.6 percent overall. In the Northeast, burglaries declined 10 percent, contributing to an overall property crime reduction of 3 percent.
Larceny-theft also declined in every region, although to a lesser extent. Still, these figures must come as a relief to those who feared larcenies would spike after many states raised their felony theft thresholds, charging those who stole small amounts with misdemeanors instead. One category of property crime increased in the South and Midwest, however: motor vehicle theft. Some experts attribute the rise in auto thefts to cars going keyless: Thieves use sophisticated devices to mimic key fobs, and then start the engine with the push of a button once inside.
In terms of property-related crimes, Washington, D.C., once again topped multiple categories, including larceny-theft and property crime overall. As with violent crimes, Alaska boasted high per capita rates of property crimes as well. Indeed, certain Alaskan cities have been devastated by theft in recent years: In Anchorage, police report that more than $45 million in property was stolen in 2017. Albuquerque, New Mexico, may play a similarly outsized roll in its state's property crime statistics. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, nearly 10,000 cars were stolen in the city in 2017.
Crime Prevention: A Work in Progress
Our findings present both reason for hope and some harsh realities: For all the states that possess enviably low crime rates, others still struggle to provide residents with a basic sense of security. Moreover, clearance rates remain troublingly insufficient in many areas, suggesting that justice goes unserved too often. Perhaps these data help explain the disparity between the statistical improvement reported by authorities and the public's sense that crime is increasing. Whatever annual crime figures show, American sentiment reflects how much remains to be done.
However crime and law enforcement evolve in the years to come, it is up to individuals to take appropriate safety precautions to protect themselves and their families. Even in communities in which crime rarely occurs, prudence is the best policy. Thankfully, many of the most effective safety measures come at no cost at all – they simply require the willingness to remain aware. In many ways, that's the crucial conclusion to draw from this project's data: Crime can happen anywhere, so no matter where you live, it pays to be prepared.
Data on 2017 crime frequency rates per 100,000 residents, as well as information on the number of law enforcement employees in each state, were collected from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. Data on percentage changes in both physical and violent crime from 2016 to 2017 were also recorded.
State-by-State Crime Score
The number of law enforcement employees was compared to each state's population – also obtained from the UCR Program – to create a ratio of residents to law personnel in each state. Data on state median income was collected from the U.S. Census Bureau. These factors were used to create a numeric crime score in which each factor was weighted according to its impact on a region's safety. 2016 research conducted by the University of Chapman and FBI perceptions of each crime's seriousness were used to determine how much weight should be attributed to each crime rate. For further explanation as to how crimes were assigned weights, please reference the appendix.
The equation used to determine each state's crime score is as follows, where the numeric factors represent the assigned weights for each variable:
[X1(1.0) + X2(0.86) + X3(0.90) + X4(0.88) + X5(0.74) + X6(0.80) + X7(0.62) + Y1(0.5) + Y2(0.5) + Y3(0.5)] - [Z1(0.10) + Z2(0.10)]:
X2 Rape Rate
X3 Robbery Rate
X4 Aggravated Assault Rate
X5 Burglary Rate
X6 Larceny-Theft Rate
X7 Motor Vehicle Theft Rate
Y1 Officers: Population Ratio
Y2 Violent Crime Percentage Change 2016-2017
Y3 Property Crime Percentage Change 2016-2017
Z1 Population Change
Z2 Population Median Income
To explore state rankings specifically pertaining to violent crime, a variation of this equation excluding property crime-related variables – X5, X6, X7, Y3 – was used. To explore state rankings specifically pertaining to property crime, a variation of this equation excluding property crime-related variables – X1, X2, X3, Y5, Y6 – was used.
For easier reader consumption and visualization purposes, the crime scores were rescaled into a representative index ranging from 0 to 100, where 100 represented the state with the highest crime scores and, therefore, the most dangerous.
"Violent Crime" is composed of five offenses: murder, nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
"Property Crime" consists of burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.
For more information on how crimes are categorized by the FBI, please visit: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017
For more information on clearances by arrest or exceptional means, please visit: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2017/crime-in-the-u.s.-2017/topic-pages/clearances
Fair Use Statement
If you appreciate this project enough to share it with others, we're grateful for your interest in our work. While we encourage you to use our findings for any noncommercial purpose, keep in mind that this page includes valuable information pertaining to this project's methodology. So whenever you share our work, please include a link back to this page. Your readers will benefit from the additional insight, and we'll get due credit for our efforts.