In light of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the ensuing movement for stronger gun control laws spearheaded by teenaged survivors of the shooting, the dual issues of gun control and violent crime are on many Americans’ minds.

Is this just about gun control?

The strictness of gun laws seems to play a limited role in violent crime rates, as the states with well over their share of cities in the top 100 (Table 1), like Florida, Michigan, Georgia, and Alabama, all have rather lax gun laws. However, there are outliers, as Illinois, the location of #1 East St. Louis (as well as Chicago, which has a very violent crime rate for its population, yet not high enough to place in the top 100) , and New Jersey, home of five cities in the top 100, have very strict gun laws.

​Although mass shootings are becoming increasingly common in American life, the violent crime and prevalence of gun murders plaguing America’s most dangerous cities aren’t best explained by lax gun laws, rates of gun ownership, or one-off rampages (although, these do have an effect), but rather, by income inequality.

Where there is a high poverty rate, and little opportunity to earn a decent wage, we find high homicide rates and a prevalence of other types of violent crime.

The American communities suffering the hardest at the hands of violent crime are also some of the most impoverished in the country, with some of the highest unemployment rates, to boot.

Is this the most dangerous city in America?

Let’s look at #1 (Table 1, above), East St. Louis, IL, a city of 27,000, just across the Mississippi River from the much larger--yet also crime-plagued--St. Louis, Missouri. At its peak in 1950, the city boasted a population of 82,366, yet due to the effects of late 20th century deindustrialization: the closing of many factories that provided the community with a majority of its jobs, and the ensuing rerouting of railroads once going through the city, a majority of East St. Louis residents fled searching for greater opportunity elsewhere, leaving the remaining denizens of the city struggling to survive while crime rates ballooned.

East St. Louis now charts a whopping 4,888 violent crimes per 100,000 people. The phenomenon of deindustrialization also explains the dramatic increase in violent crime rates for many other cities on the list, including #5 Flint, MI, #6 Detroit, MI and #25 Atlantic City, NJ.

most dangerous cities

Table 1. Top 100 most dangerous cities, per average rate of violent crime, per 100,000 people

RankCityStateApprox. PopulationViolent Crime/100000Annual Trend
1East St LouisIL270004888-27%
2Darby BoroughPA110003617-13%
3Opa LockaFL1600028072%
4Florida CityFL1200025510%
5FlintMI1010002109-18%
6DetroitMI7040002059-10%
7Saginaw CityMI510002021-18%
8College ParkGA1400019673%
9PrichardAL230001936-16%
10West MemphisAR260001929-32%
11CocoaFL170001911-20%
12AnnistonAL23000186911%
13SikestonMO1600018160%
14Chester CityPA340001810-10%
15GallupNM2200017918%
16LumbertonNC220001788-10%
17Belle GladeFL180001787-14%
18Highland ParkMI110001746-4%
19Muskegon HeightsMI110001738-8%
20OaklandCA40000017341%
21Mckeesport CityPA2100017005%
22St. LouisMO3190001698-11%
23Benton HarborMI10000169831%
24ElktonMD160001684-5%
25Atlantic CityNJ400001678-16%
26OpelousasLA1700016642%
27WilmingtonDE720001654-8%
28BessemerAL27000163914%
29NewburghNY290001635-13%
30MemphisTN6540001612-1%
31BellmeadTX100001588-4%
32Asbury ParkNJ160001586-18%
33Myrtle BeachSC280001566-12%
34InksterMI250001541-16%
35HarveyIL250001534-3%
36Alexandria CityLA48000148912%
37Lake CityFL120001474-8%
38AmericusGA1700014736%
39ChelseaMA360001467-24%
40Harper WoodsMI14000144374%
41HomesteadFL630001440-7%
42ArdmoreOK2500014284%
43HammondLA200001411-18%
44EmeryvilleCA100001411-18%
45Mount VernonIL150001391-2%
46BirminghamAL21300013862%
47Little RockAR1960001382-7%
48Irvington TwpNJ540001382-9%
49SpartanburgSC370001378-24%
50Baltimore CityMD6240001374-7%
51Riviera BeachFL330001371-17%
52GreenwoodSC230001359-29%
53BrunswickGA160001359-12%
54Indiana BoroPA140001345-2%
55MonroeLA49000134327%
56FairfieldAL1100013394%
57StocktonCA2970001337-7%
58ClevelandOH3930001335-5%
59RockfordIL1520001327-9%
60BlythevilleAR15000132513%
61Harrisburg CityPA490001318-16%
62TrentonNJ850001311-11%
63RiverdaleIL140001306-13%
64RaymondvilleTX110001297-5%
65HamtramckMI220001292-12%
66AtlantaGA4380001291-9%
67New HavenCT1300001289-15%
68KinstonNC22000127417%
69Pine BluffAR480001261-9%
70BastropLA1100012528%
71SelmaAL2000012481%
72Daytona BeachFL620001239-5%
73BuffaloNY2610001238-7%
74JenningsMO150001230-12%
75AthensTN140001228-7%
76HendersonNC15000122711%
77HartfordCT1250001210-10%
78CrossvilleTN110001207-14%
79ComptonCA980001195-6%
80Kansas CityMO4640001194-3%
81BridgetonNJ250001190-7%
82MilwaukeeWI599000118912%
83BransonMO110001178-18%
84Tifton CityGA17000117740%
85Lake WorthFL360001176-6%
86CordeleGA11000116753%
87EuniceLA100001167-1%
88Niagara FallsNY500001157-4%
89East PointGA3500011495%
90WashingtonDC6310001149-4%
91IndianapolisIN84200011461%
92Wilkinsburg BoroPA160001142-22%
93BeaufortSC130001139-10%
94MiamiFL4120001138-7%
95Fort PierceFL430001134-3%
96DyersburgTN17000113012%
97New BedfordMA950001122-3%
98BrocktonMA940001121-7%
99SalisburyMD310001120-21%
100NewarkNJ27800011150%

Is this the other most dangerous city in America?

Excluding the smaller cities produces a 21-city list (Table 2) that features many of the “usual culprits” known for crime problems for decades, suggesting that crime problems may be due to very long-term and deep-seated issues of individual cities.

In looking at Table 2, of the worst cities over 100,000, Flint, MI is in the top position (#5, overall). The city--hit particularly hard in the last couple decades of the 20th century in the wake of large auto companies relocating their factories, taking many jobs along with them--has been in the news the past few years for suffering from a yet-to-be-resolved water crisis. Flint’s problem with contaminated water further underscores how cities with violent crime epidemics also face a situation where the basic needs that many other communities take for granted are not met.

Continuing with the larger cities on the list, Flint is followed by Detroit, MI (#6), Oakland, CA (#20), St. Louis, MO (#22) and Memphis, TN. These cities all have some things in common: the largest ethnic group in each is African-American, and they all continue to reel from the devastating effects of deindustrialization and the shift from the U.S. economy from manufacturing to service.

most dangerous over 100k

Table 2. Cities over 100,000 people within the “worst 100”

CityStateApprox. PopulationViolent Crime/100,000Annual Trend
FlintMI1010002109-18%
DetroitMI7040002059-10%
OaklandCA40000017341%
St. LouisMO3190001698-11%
MemphisTN6540001612-1%
BirminghamAL21300013862%
Little RockAR1960001382-7%
Baltimore CityMD6240001374-7%
StocktonCA2970001337-7%
ClevelandOH3930001335-5%
RockfordIL1520001327-9%
AtlantaGA4380001291-9%
New HavenCT1300001289-15%
BuffaloNY2610001238-7%
HartfordCT1250001210-10%
Kansas CityMO4640001194-3%
MilwaukeeWI599000118912%
Washington MetropolitanDC6310001149-4%
IndianapolisIN84200011461%
MiamiFL4120001138-7%
NewarkNJ27800011150%

Does population size matter when ranking America's dangerous cities?

Many of the communities in Table 1 are relatively small, with 68 of the top 100 having populations under 50K, and 37 possessing populations under 20K. However, many of these communities are adjacent to larger metropolitan areas, such as #2 Darby Borough, PA (population: 11,000), which is located 5 miles outside of Philadelphia, and Florida City, FL just outside of Miami.

A high population does not indicate that a city will have a high violent crime rate, as just 21 cities in the top 100 have populations over 100,000, with only 2 (Detroit, MI and Indianapolis, IN) topping 700,000.

Many of these smaller communities have violent crime rates similar to the most dangerous neighborhoods of the larger cities they are adjacent to, and in many cases, they border these neighborhoods. The difference is that the larger cities also have more affluent, low crime areas that lower their overall violent crime rates, while their smaller satellite cities do not.​

If the top 100 worst trends (greatest increases in violent crime over the period) are looked at (Table 3), all of the cities have populations under 100,000. In essence, it is the smaller cities that actually may have the greatest ongoing risk of violent crime. Only one city appeared in both tables 1 and 3: Harper Woods, Michigan. Unsurprisingly, it is a suburb of Detroit.

Table 3. Worst 100 cities for crime trending, per year

CityStateApprox. PopulationViolent Crime/100,000Annual Trend
EdgewaterNJ12000330181.80%
CrestwoodMO12000355159.80%
BuffaloMN16000347142.40%
Monroe Twp Middlesex CoNJ40000143141.80%
River ForestIL11000468139.70%
ShelbyvilleIN19000224131.80%
Lake ForestIL19000189130.40%
Chicago RidgeIL14000353129.00%
Town & CountryMO11000166127.10%
EastonMA23000385125.60%
GrotonMA1100086125.20%
WiltonCT1800042122.40%
Spanish ForkUT3600087121.40%
Clear Creek Twp Warren CoOH1400046115.20%
MoscowID24000202111.20%
Sparta TwpNJ2000044110.20%
ManchesterMO1800060108.20%
RaymondNH10000305107.10%
WheelingIL38000288106.00%
Big RapidsMI11000713104.70%
BurrillvilleRI16000141102.40%
MontgomeryIL19000238102.00%
American TwpOH1200074101.00%
Ocean PinesMD1200015299.90%
SandwichMA2100042499.10%
Limerick TwpPA1800011599.10%
Stafford TwpNJ2700010998.60%
St. CharlesIL3300017597.40%
SomersworthNH1200081297.00%
GardenID1100079796.40%
Village Of La Grange ParkIL140008795.70%
Lower Burrell CityPA1200016994.80%
South Park TwpPA130007994.40%
MokenaIL1900012394.00%
La MiradaCA4900031894.00%
Bay VillageOH160009093.20%
St. AnnMO1300099791.50%
Hope MillsNC1600084690.40%
PrattvilleAL3500043190.30%
Schiller ParkIL1200028389.60%
Colts Neck TwpNJ1000010288.80%
Buckingham Twp Bucks CoPA200004688.60%
Clark TwpNJ150006187.60%
Upper Uwchlan TwpPA110004487.20%
StruthersOH1100019285.00%
Warwick TownNY1900012384.80%
OronoME110006684.50%
SpencerIA110005982.80%
New CanaanCT200003982.50%
JasperIN1500010882.50%
Amity Twp Berks CoPA130007982.40%
Burlington TwpNJ2300028482.30%
Richland Twp Cambria CoPA1300015881.50%
CartersvilleGA2000051781.20%
ZacharyLA1500065080.20%
Peters Twp Washington CoPA210005879.80%
KennettMO1100075179.70%
MilfordMI1600011778.70%
WolcottCT170005878.50%
Troy CityMO1100015578.10%
Warsaw CityIN1400031877.60%
South WindsorCT260006877.20%
BethelCT190004675.80%
Hyde ParkNY2200015775.70%
BedfordIN1300028575.30%
Crawfordsville CityIN1600032975.10%
Harper WoodsMI14000144374.30%
North Lebanon TwpPA1200017173.70%
Powder SpringsGA1400056873.20%
StrongsvilleOH450006273.20%
HopkintonMA150003272.90%
KennebunkME1100010372.80%
Newtown Twp Bucks CoPA220008572.60%
Montville Twp Medina CoOH110004572.30%
VermillionSD1100017971.80%
Woodbury TownNY110007471.40%
Newton Twp Delaware CoPA1200010371.30%
FarmingtonCT2500010371.20%
ShelbyvilleKY1400039970.90%
Northville TwpMI2900010970.90%
HamdenCT6100026370.80%
IrontonOH1100015570.80%
Spring LakeNC1300039370.10%
North AttleboroMA290003669.60%
Montgomery TwpNJ220003869.20%
ColumbusNE2200017168.60%
NorfolkMA110003368.50%
York TownME130006368.50%
Scott Twp Allegheny CoPA1700013168.20%
Baldwin BoroPA2000020668.10%
Mccandless TwpPA290004467.90%
Great BendKS1600086967.40%
East GreenwichRI130007266.90%
ScarsdaleNY170004166.00%
Kingston BoroPA1300026965.10%
HammontonNJ1500019164.70%
PequannockNJ160009963.70%
RamseyMN2400013463.60%
Montville TwpNJ220005162.70%
Country Club HillsIL1700058062.70%

Is violent crime decreasing in America?

Despite the high violent crime rates plaguing these cities, there is evidence in the data (Tables 5 and 6, below) that, overall, the violence is lessening, and will continue to do so.

For 71% of the list, violent crime has dropped in recent years, often with a percentage drop in the double digits.

For example: Of the top 10 most dangerous cities (Table 1), 7 have seen double digit percentage drops in violent crime, with one (Florida City, FL) holding steady, while the two cities witnessing an increase in violent crime, Opa Locka, FL and College Park, GA, only saw violent crime increase by 2% and 3%, respectively.

In some cases, cities on the list witnessed an alarming increase in violent crime over recent years, such as Benton, MI, hit with a 31% increase, and Harper Woods, MI, which logged an alarming 74% increase. As both of these communities are rather small--with populations of less than 15K--the numbers indicate a heightened rate of gang activity or turf war.

While the trend of declining violent crime across the board offers up some hope for American cities besieged by violence and murder, many of them have deep seated issues that have plagued their neighborhoods for decades, and it is not entirely clear where the solution lies.

In addition, even if ranked among the “worst” trends for larger cities, many of these cities still have negative crime trending (reduced violent crime over time). The “surprise” is that cities of such size make up a minority of the 100 cities with high violent crime rates. This may be an artifact of our information system. More attention is paid to the events of a large city from outside that city. Small cities’ events tend to not be propagated as far in the media.

Table 5. Worst 100 cities of at least 100,000 people for crime trending, per year

CityStateApprox. PopulationViolent Crime/100000Annual Trend
JolietIL14800039918%
Green BayWI10500041912%
MilwaukeeWI599000118912%
MontgomeryAL20500040111%
SpringfieldMO16200092910%
OdessaTX10600086210%
BillingsMT1070003219%
Sioux FallsSD1590003449%
EugeneOR1580002858%
SurpriseAZ1210001138%
Simi ValleyCA1260001077%
ModestoCA2040007517%
TemeculaCA104000897%
RichardsonTX1030001827%
GreshamOR1080004546%
OxnardCA2010003356%
EvansvilleIN1190004476%
San BernardinoCA2130008746%
AmherstNY1180001006%
ManchesterNH1100005616%
Costa MesaCA1120002246%
VallejoCA1180007665%
GarlandTX2330002295%
New OrleansLA3640007985%
San FranciscoCA8250007245%
WaterburyCT1100003345%
BeaumontTX1190008903%
HollywoodFL1450004482%
ChattanoogaTN1710009332%
FargoND1100003332%
Fort WayneIN2550003202%
BirminghamAL21300013862%
Round RockTX1060001211%
Des MoinesIA2060005241%
YonkersNY1980005001%
AlbuquerqueNM5540007691%
OaklandCA40000017341%
HuntsvilleAL1830007761%
IndianapolisIN84200011461%
NewarkNJ27800011150%
NormanOK1150001460%
Sterling HeightsMI1300001610%
ArvadaCO1100001380%
MemphisTN6540001612-1%
ToledoOH2850001021-1%
ColumbusGA197000503-1%
SeattleWA632000579-1%
MesaAZ451000401-1%
Winston SalemNC234000650-1%
FairfieldCA108000435-1%
PhoenixAZ1486000569-1%
Salt Lake CityUT190000667-1%
CarslbadCA109000200-1%
WorcesterMA183000955-2%
VenturaCA108000267-2%
New York CityNY8309000603-2%
ChesapeakeVA228000374-2%
SavannahGA231000373-2%
OmahaNE421000555-2%
WilmingtonNC110000616-2%
DenverCO631000578-3%
IndependenceMO117000421-3%
Cedar RapidsIA128000285-3%
LouisvilleKY668000571-3%
AntiochCA105000846-3%
LakewoodCO146000423-3%
PalmdaleCA155000510-3%
Kansas CityMO4640001194-3%
SalemOR158000324-3%
West Palm BeachFL102000751-3%
WestminsterCO109000221-3%
FayettevilleNC203000534-3%
JacksonvilleFL840000619-3%
OrangeCA139000105-3%
Palm BayFL104000508-3%
BoiseID211000250-3%
LubbockTX236000797-4%
LansingMI114000999-4%
RochesterMN109000179-4%
Charlotte MecklenburgNC814000605-4%
ClarksvilleTN139000598-4%
OceansideCA171000376-4%
AlexandriaVA145000176-4%
TacomaWA202000786-4%
LancasterCA159000533-4%
Las VegasNV1483000778-4%
DurhamNC238000686-4%
NapervilleIL14300081-4%
TucsonAZ526000640-4%
PasadenaTX153000382-4%
SunnyvaleCA145000110-4%
WashingtonDC6310001149-4%
AthensGA118000335-4%
VisaliaCA127000412-4%
Pembroke PinesFL160000172-4%
RaleighNC416000408-4%
MurfreesboroTN113000565-5%
IrvingTX224000228-5%
AmarilloTX195000608-5%
Kansas CityKS147000567-5%

Another way to rank America's most dangerous cities?

If we compare Tables 4 and 5, we find that 19 cities appear in both tables. So, if we look at the overall violent crime rates (per 100,000 people), the trend that crime is taking in a city, and the size of a city, 12 of these 19 might qualify as the “most dangerous”, if we exclude those who appear to have falling crime rates. What is interesting is that they don’t appear on most conventional lists of “most dangerous cities.”

Table 6. Combined worst of violent crime rate and trend of cities of at least 100,000 people

CityStateApprox. PopulationViolent Crime/100,000Annual Trend
MilwaukeeWI599000118912%
ChattanoogaTN1710009332%
SpringfieldMO16200092910%
BeaumontTX1190008903%
San BernardinoCA2130008746%
OdessaTX10600086210%
New OrleansLA3640007985%
HuntsvilleAL1830007761%
AlbuquerqueNM5540007691%
VallejoCA1180007665%
ModestoCA2040007517%
West Palm BeachFL102000751-3%
San FranciscoCA8250007245%
Salt Lake CityUT190000667-1%
Winston SalemNC234000650-1%
TucsonAZ526000640-4%
JacksonvilleFL840000619-3%
WilmingtonNC110000616-2%
AmarilloTX195000608-5%

Methodology

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database was consulted and crime reports were downloaded for the years 2010-2014 (the most recent years available) for multiple jurisdictions. This database is restricted to agencies that serve at least 10,000 people. After eliminating data for any jurisdiction that was purely “regional” (not a municipality), not present at least 3 of the 5 years, or with multiple missing entries, 3,482 towns/cities remained for analysis.

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