Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Crime and Safety in Boston

Two crime related events last week reminded me that the issues of crime and safety are one reason families move to the suburbs. Over the weekend there was a burglary (the first ever) in our building and an attempt was made on our unit as well. Then on Tuesday a spike in Boston homicides in 2014 was the top story for both the print and broadcast media.

The murder statistics did not faze me as they were numbers and not reports about the specific people affected. Further, none of the homicides were proximate by relationship or location, and the daily media coverage of crime, war and wrongful death has left me a bit desensitized. However, the burglary attempt on our home with my two young children unsettled me for a few days.

The Woman Who was Trying to Rob Us

A little over a week ago I heard someone repeatedly knocking or trying to open a door of a neighbor, and then it was our unit. My husband answered to find an unfamiliar woman with a newspaper. She calmly told him that she found the paper between our door and the neighbor’s and was not sure to whom it belonged. When she left she walked down the hall and began talking to a man. Although it was strange, neither of us thought anything of it, still being sleep deprived from our new arrival. Later that day we learned that a neighbor in another unit on our floor had accidentally left her door unlocked and been robbed. The burglar had tried every door in the building, and even walked into the unit of someone who was home. The police investigation is ongoing and thus I am not free to discuss any details but I will provide an update when permitted.You will not believe who we suspect our would-be robber to be.

Why I Have Always Felt Safe in the City

Ironically one of the reasons I love living in the city is I feel safe here. When my husband is out of town, I sleep soundly knowing that my children and I are protected not only by our front door, but via the greater shelter of our building. I am surrounded by neighbors steps from my door. I sleep sounder here than I ever would living in a house that feels more isolated. This is not to say that I am naïve. It is intentional that we live in a concierge building. When we started the home buying process that was probably the first line I drew in the sand (or on the concrete); we would only consider concierge buildings.

Even though the recent report about homicides in Boston this January is troubling, I could regard that, and the break-in of our building, as anomalies. blogger James Alan Fox wrote, "it is about time that we take a calmer approach to short-term fluctuations in crime figures, especially when they are based on a narrow time span."[1] In fact, generally the recent news about crime in Boston has told a story of declining not escalating crime. The Boston Globe and Boston Police Department (BPD) indicate that crime rates fell in 2013 with the South Boston neighborhood fairing particularly well.[2] The New York Times recently reported that falling crime rates in Boston over the past two decades as a whole have been part of the revitalization of the city.[3] In spite of these improvements, civil leaders are not becoming lax on crime. New Mayor Marty Walsh campaigned on a platform in part driven by promises to further reduce crime, and Governor Patrick and the State recently engaged private industry to address issues of crime in Boston.[4]

What the Statistics Tell Us about How Safe We are in Boston

Feeling safe and being safe are obviously not the same. After the burglary, I researched crime in the suburbs as compared to the city. I encountered a number of articles by the security industry positing that suburban homes are at least as likely to be burglarized as urban residences due to the false sense of security and thus greater risks taken by suburban home owners. The Department of Justice statistics show however, that both violent and non-violent crime rates were approximately two times higher in Boston than in the surrounding suburbs as of 2008.

Crime Type
Rate per 100,000 population in Boston 2008[5]
Rate per 100,000 population in Boston Suburbs 2008[5]
Difference in Rate, Suburbs as Percent of City

Going back two decades, crime rates were much higher in the city than the suburbs, and I was surprised to learn the difference between the two geographies is now so narrow.[5] Still the suburbs do appear to be safer. As anyone who has taken Statistics 101 knows there is a truth to the often quoted saying, "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Below are my thoughts about these particular statistics and why they do not scare me.

  1. Crime is not Subject to Arbitrary Geographical Boundaries: First, in Boston, as in any location there are “safe” areas and “unsafe” areas. The reality is more violent crimes occur in some neighborhoods than others, and the same is true of property crimes. This is also true of the suburbs – some suburbs and some neighborhoods fall victim to crimes more than others. Criminals look for opportunities, not lines on the map.

  1. Statistics Can Be Misleading: It is interesting that the crime statistics are reported per 100,000 who live in the city. If we consider a suburb like Wellesley which had a population of ~28,000 at the 2010 census, on any given day a number of residents leave Wellesley to work and some may enter Wellesley to work. However the daytime population likely is not much different than the population that lives there. In Boston, the population is ~635,000 but each day roughly 300,000 additional persons commute into the city for work, whereas few leave the city for work. [6] [7] If we apply the crime rates to a population of 935,000 people rather than 635,000, the property crime rate falls from 3660 to roughly 2485 per 100,000 and the violent crime rate from 1881 to 1277 per 100,000.

  1. We Have a Role in Our Own Safety: The security industry plays off the false sense of security in the suburbs and there is truth to that. Growing up, we never locked the door. By contrast, my husband is militant about locking our door every time we leave the house and every night before bed. He also always insists I take a taxi rather than walk from the T at night. Statistically each person is as likely as the next to be victim of a crime. In reality, some people leave themselves more open to an attack.

  1. Some Crimes, like School Shootings, Occur Mainly in the Suburbs: As a parent, I am particularly concerned about violence in schools. Interestingly, school shootings seem to be a predominately suburban problem and not a new one either.
But the string of recent shootings in suburban school districts has led some experts to examine whether the nature of suburban life itself might be playing a role in such tragedies.

School shootings are, thankfully, rare events. But when they do occur, they often do so in otherwise peaceful small towns or suburbs. Places like Newtown, Connecticut.
-The Social Roots of School Shootings, Washington Post, 2012

A group of people who describe themselves as New Urbanists, argue that suburban culture is isolating and advocate the building of walkable urban settings where diverse groups of people negotiate and interact, rather than segregated, gated suburban communities to reduce crime.[8] Is this radical? If nothing else it is counter culture, just as is our family life in Boston.

I am unable to state with certainty that we are as safe in the city as in the suburbs, yet at the same time, I can not conclusively state that we are particularly susceptible to crime where we live. More importantly, the takeaway ought to be that regardless of geography, it is clear that safety is something we control through our choices and yet at the same time have no control over, as we cannot control the choices of others.

What are your thoughts? What am I missing? Discuss below.

[1] Fox, James Alan. Calm Down When Crime's Up,, January 28, 2014.
[2] Rosso, Patrick D. South Boston Crime Down in 2013, The Boston Globe, January 13, 2014.
[3] Seelye, Katharine Q. Two Decades of Change Have Boston Sparkling, The New York Times, January 5, 2014.
[4] WBUR Newsroom, Gov. Patrick Launches Initiative to Reduce Recidivism. WBUR, January 29, 2014.
[5] Kneebone, Elizabeth and Raphael, Stephen. City and Suburban Crime Trends in Metropolitan America, Brookings Institute, May 2011. Note: this report demonstrates not only a drastic decrease in the difference between urban and suburban crime in Boston (and nationally), but also argues that the correlation between ethnic groups and crime is also falling.
[6] US Census, 2010.
[7] Modes of Transportation, City of Boston, accessed January 30, 2014.
[8] Craven, Jackie. Does Suburbia Breed Violence? Architecture, accessed January 30, 2014.


  1. Wow Ashley! What a crazy scheme. Sorry to hear about the attempt. Glad y'all are safe though :D
    (Great citations by the way!)

  2. Ashley, I too am sorry about the burglar, but I continue to be impressed by the how well researched and informative this blog is. - Lisa Rob.

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