DC Mythbusting: Danger!

Photo courtesy of
‘Nacho #19’
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

I was born and raised in the suburbs, and when I decided to become a city planner and move to a major city, I heard from many people in my parents’ generation about how dangerous Washington DC was.  “It’s the murder capital of the country!” But is it really?  How does DC’s crime rate compare to that of other cities?  These sound like some good myths to bust.  Let’s get to it!

So is DC the murder capital of the country?  This claim may have been true at one point, but that was about twenty years ago.  The District went through a trying time in the early 90s, when crack cocaine took over the city and murders peaked at 479 in 1991 (an astounding 78.92 murders per 100,000 residents, Borderstan points out).  But last year, there were 143 homicides in the city, continuing a decades-long downward trend.  So yes, at one point the District may have had the highest murder rate in the country, but that’s definitely not the case now.

Photo courtesy of
‘Drogas y pistolas’
courtesy of ‘Daquella manera’

There are still approximately 31.4 murders per 100,000 residents in the District, using 2008 figures.  Based on FBI figures, Washington DC still has the fifth highest murder rate in the country, after New Orleans (63.6 per 100,000), St. Louis (46.9), Baltimore (36.9) and Detroit (33.8).  But the news isn’t all bad– violent crimes in general decreased 46% between 1995 and 2008.  The District is a much safer city than it once was.  Update: A helpful reader sent me this article from the Baltimore Sun showing that DC has officially fallen out of the top 10 in 2009, as the murder rate has dropped to 23.8 murders per 100,000 residents.

So now that we know that DC isn’t the murder capital of the country, let’s break down the types of crime in the city.  According to the Metropolitan Police Department, there were over 36,000 crimes in the District in 2008.  Here’s how they break down:

2008 Crime, from MPD Crime Statistics

Thefts account for over half of all crimes in the District, followed by stolen cars, robberies, aggravated assault, and burglaries.  There are many more property crimes than violent crimes in the District (5,104 property crimes per 100,000 residents compared to 1,437 violent crimes per 100,000 residents).  So the good news here is that crime is decreasing across the board, and if you experience a crime, it is more likely someone wanting your stuff than someone wanting to hurt or kill you.  Among cities with more than 250,000 residents, the District has the 11th highest violent crime rate in the country, and the 38th highest property crime rate.

Of course, crime isn’t evenly distributed across the District.  According to 2007 data from DC neighborhood profiles, neighborhoods range from practically no violent crime (in Chevy Chase, Cathedral Heights, and Glover Park, for example), to areas with 40 times as much violent crime (in Trinidad).  And for property crime, it’s a bit different– the safest neighborhood is still Chevy Chase (followed by Spring Valley and Palisades), but the areas with the highest property crime rates are Penn Quarter and Shaw.  And to illustrate the divide between various quadrants of the city, there’s this murder map showing the location of homicides between 2004 and 2006.

So in conclusion, DC is not the murder capital of the country– that title goes to New Orleans.  Unfortunately, the District is still near the top in cities with violent crime, so there is some truth to the statement that DC is more dangerous than other comparable cities.  But like any city, there are super safe areas and some not so safe areas here.  I feel pretty safe in my corner of the city, and the District has come a long way from the violence of the early 90s,  so the next time someone tells me how dangerous Washington DC is I’m going to set them straight.  Myth busted.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

15 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Danger!

  1. What a useful graph from MPD. Should’ve gone with multiple shades of white, for real incoherence.

  2. Unfortunately, our crime rate is still MUCH higher than cities such as NY or Chicago. Why? That is a discussion we are not having.

  3. Yeah – the pie chart needs to be redone. Its the *only* important graphic in your entire post and its indecipherable. Maybe if you have it blown up in Excel and you can actually see what the color gradations are in the legend…but on my side of the monitor (and it is a 24″ monitor, at that) its impossible to tell which category belongs to each %. So either better color choices or add labels to the pie chart.
    Hint: normally the single color choice with some gradation works nicely, but not if you have more than 3 or so categories.

  4. Nice job, Shannon.

    I can tell you this much, twenty years ago the debates we had were all about the crime itself, not the merits of a pie chart on crime. I think that tells you how far we’ve come. ;)

  5. Ditto on the graph. I tried counting in order and therefore thought that stolen auto was the 51% (which didn’t make much sense) but the narrative clearly identifies theft as being the 51%. Honestly, may as well just delete the graph alltogether as it tells you nothing.

  6. Okay people, I’ve updated the post with a more colorful graph. No more comments on how terrible the graph is, please!

  7. Can you explain the difference between robbery and theft? There seem to be 4 different categories around stealing: robbery, theft, stolen auto, and burglary.

  8. Throughout the article, you referred to the district as “Washington DC.” It should be “Washington, DC.” Bad slip (and sloppy work) by both you and your editor, particularly in an article about the district itself with multiple references to DC’s full name.

  9. Oh Molly, it’s flattering that you think we have a full-time editor. And “District” is a proper noun when referring to the District of Columbia. Please be polite when throwing stones from inside your glass house.

    Carla, I am not an expert, but my understanding is that the difference between robbery and theft is that robbery involves a confrontation or threat of violence directly with/against a person, like a mugging or knocking over a liquor store, and theft is something you do with property, like shoplifting. Burglary involves breaking into a building. Auto theft is broken out because the law recognizes it as a separate category of theft crime.

  10. Tiffany, I’ll acknowledge my mistake from “inside my glass house,” as you so politely and professionally put it. I should have capitalized “District” in my comment, which was intended as constructive criticism. Similarly, the author should have correctly punctuated the name of our District in her article, and We Love DC should acknowledge when it makes mistakes in its published work. Fair’s fair.

  11. At no point did anyone deny that Washington, DC takes a comma. I simply remind you that trolling is not an acceptable way to point it out. We don’t show up at your blog to insult you, after all.

  12. I don’t think I was “trolling.” (I also don’t have a blog.) I was reading We Love DC’s columns for the morning, as I do every morning because you’ve got good writers (including Shannon) on staff and you cover interesting news. I intended my comment as constructive criticism for a news outlet I hope to see grow in prominence. I’m sorry you’ve taken such offense at that and responded with such virulence.

  13. I’m certainly not reacting with “virulence,” since I am not an infectious disease. I think you mean “vitriol,” and it isn’t. The choice of the word “sloppiness” is the opposite of constructive; it’s just insulting for the sake of being insulting.

    And you’re certainly listed as a contributor to the [redacted] blog, so if you’re not one, that might be news to the rest of them.

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