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Population Density and Crime

Last evening, Matt Yglesias was taking a shortcut back from an evening with Megan McArdle and Peter Suderman and got assaulted: “a couple of dudes ran up from behind, punched me in the head, then kicked me a couple of times before running off.” Thankfully, he escaped with just some bumps and bruises–and  his pre-existing preferences with regard to urban planning reinforced.

To offer a policy observation, higher density helps reduce street crime in an urban environment in two ways. One is that in a higher density city, any given street is less likely to be empty of passersby at any given time. The other is that if a given patch of land has more citizens, that means it can also support a larger base of police officers. And for policing efficacy both the ratio of cops to citzens and of cops to land matters. Therefore, all else being equal a denser city will be a better policed city.

I’d note first that, when I return home from an evening out, I hop in my car and don’t get out until I’m safely ensconced in my garage. So there are some advantages to suburban sprawl.

Beyond that, while it’s intuitively logical that densely populated areas would produce lower rates of crime for the reasons Matt suggests, is it really true? Certainly, one hears about muggings in Manhattan, Boston, and other very dense cities all the time. Surely, the incidence of violent crime per square mile rises rather than falls with population density? Certainly, I’d be less worried about random dudes assaulting me while walking around my subdivision than in downtown DC.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Schismatism says:

    I don’t think anyone would ever call Downtown DC dense, at least not dense enough. Whatever density NYC has is countered by the neg. externalities from its rent controls.

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  2. Tano says:

    the incidence of violent crime per square mile rises rather than falls with population density?

    I imagine so, but what about the incidence per capita as density increases? Isn’t that the relevant question?

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  3. Herb says:

    is it really true?

    Doubt it. From a criminal’s perspective, a denser population means more opportunities.

    Yglesias’s point about the cops is a good one though. Packing everyone into one place would make policing more efficient.

    Not sure how that would be preferable to a more spread-out existence where such efficient policing isn’t really necessary.

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  4. John Burgess says:

    I was mugged once in DC, about two blocks from the White House, in fact. It was only around 11:00pm on a weekend night. I’d just been paid and spent a few hours at the long-gone Matt Kane’s Bit O’ Ireland and was walking down to Pennsylvania Ave. to catch a bus home. Two women approached me, pulled a knife, and said, “Your money, honey.” There went that week’s salary.

    The area was deserted; federal offices and nearby businesses had closed. I guess it was my bad luck. I didn’t consider myself street dumb, but clearly I wasn’t as smart as I thought.

    Population density, I think, does result in higher crimes, only somewhat mitigated by the fact that there are more people to do the informal policing. But population isn’t uniform across a city, as my experience demonstrated. Some streets may be full of potential police, but others are empty. In DC, you’d be surprised at some of the areas that attract muggers, just a block away from high-density crowds.

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  5. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    It’s not the density of the population that reduces crime, it’s the density of pistol-packing population that makes the difference.

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  6. Southern Hoosier says:

    The major factor is race, not population density. DC is 65% Black,

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  7. An Interested Party says:

    Well of course Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier would chime in with that…by the way, DC’s black population is about 55%…

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  8. One is that in a higher density city, any given street is less likely to be empty of passersby at any given time.

    Unfortunately, this contradicts a lot of psychological research. Counterintuitively, the more people witness your need for assistance, the less likely you are to actually get any. As the number of witness increases, the individual witness feel less need to act because there’s other people around to help.

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  9. Southern Hoosier says:

    @ An Interested Party

    If it were a matter if population density, then Detroit should be as safe place to live, with it’s declining population, rows of empty houses and vacant blocks.

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  10. John Burgess says:

    Southern Hoosier said:

    The major factor is race, not population density. DC is 65% Black,

    Not anymore…

    The latest census puts the figure at 54% and falling. Apparently, both the influx of White and Hispanic populations and the departure of Blacks are changing the demographics rapidly.

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  11. Southern Hoosier says:

    And the most dangerous city is:

    No. 1 Detroit, Mich.

    (Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, Mich., metropolitan statistical area)

    Population: 1,951,186

    Violent Crimes per 100,000: 1,220

    http://goo.gl/NQuGg

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  12. Southern Hoosier says:

    John Burgess says:

    The latest census puts the figure at 54% and falling. Apparently, both the influx of White and Hispanic populations and the departure of Blacks are changing the demographics rapidly.

    NeighborhoodScout’s®

    Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S.

    (Population 25,000 or more)

    39 Washington, DC

    http://goo.gl/B9XEq

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  13. Southern Hoosier says:

    Washington DC being 39th in the nation as far as dangerous cities, is not bad for a major city. Of course all the lists I found show different cities in different order, but none of them showed Washington D.C. in the top ten.

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  14. TG Chicago says:

    The major factor is race, not population density. DC is 65% Black,

    What is the threshhold for banning here? Posting false information to support a blatantly racist premise strikes me as egregious.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    McGuire’s comment and link above could be the foundation for a good discussion. I, for one, would really be interested to know if increasing gun ownership or allowing concealed carry really does bring down the incidence or violent crime. Or if the same increases the rate of accidental death or suicide. But the NRA has had a very active role in squashing research into these things. My understanding is that if you work for a university or think tank that wants to ever get government funding for any research (i.e. all of them), you better make sure none of your people are doing any research into such areas. Of course, my first reaction is that if the NRA is against the research, then it must mean that it would show that increasing gun ownership has negative consequences. But how would the NRA know? more likely, the NRA is having its way right now without being troubled by any research. Why risk it?

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: We don’t have instantaneous comment moderation, much less on Sundays. But there’s nothing particularity egregious there. DC’s black population was over 70 percent in my memory but has been plummeting with gentrification–a fact that the current mayor and many black residents deplore. The place was known as “Chocolate City,” a nickname given by blacks proudly.

    As to the notion that crime and race correlate in America, it’s hardly outrageous. Indeed, it’s undisputed. That most of that falls away in multivariate analysis makes it complicated, not racist.

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  17. I’ve read on several occasions that the highest crime rate should actually be Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia ends up reporting much better statistics because Camden, NJ (which would have long ago become part of Philadelphia if it were both in the same state) doesn’t get counted.

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  18. tom p says:

    But the NRA has had a very active role in squashing research into these things.

    What MarkedMan said.

    The other is that if a given patch of land has more citizens, that means it can also support a larger base of police officers.

    When the wife and I first moved into our 12 1/2 acres of wilderness paradise, I had a heck of a time convincing her that locking our doors was a complete waste of time. We have only 2 neighbors within a 2 mile radius and if either heard a chain saw at any time of day…. Neither would notice. Also, I have not seen a sherriffs deputy in our remote corner of the county in…. well never, really. Still I don’t really worry about crime out here, and it certainly isn’t because there aren’t any blacks out here or any crime. Meth-heads multiply. Take out one lab and 3 pop up to take it’s place, and meth heads are notorious for being violently stupid.

    The fact is that one cannot see my house from the road and if one should ignore the “No Tresspassing” sign, by the time the house can be seen one reaches a 2nd bullet pocked sign that says: “If you can read this, you are downrange” … I actually doubt that sign would have anything to do with my security, but rather that there is a very strong steak of Mind Your Own Business running thru this part of the Ozarks. Between that and “Out of sight is out of mind” I feel safe enuf even tho I probably shouldn’t.

    And contrary to SH’s simplistic and stupid racism, it is actually poverty that is the single largest determinant for crime, and poor people tend to rob poor people. Why? Because they are available. Rich people tend to live a long ways off.

    Oh, and SH, I have been subjected to 3 attempted muggings. Wanna guess the race of the perpetrators?

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  19. tom p says:

    The major factor is race, not population density.

    But there’s nothing particularity egregious there.

    Read that again James, and then repeat youself, if you can. If you do, I will feel safe in knowing that you are either racist or a blithering idiot.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @tom p: Arguing that there’s a biological determinant of crime is, absent substantial evidence, racism. Pointing out the undisputed fact that blacks commit a grossly disproportionate share of violent crime in our cities is not. Any more than noting that most of their victims, likewise, are black.

    As you note, a lot of this is a function of race and economic status being highly correlated. Some of it has to do with cultural norms, which are a legacy of a sordid and complicated history. Not to mention the vicious cycle of young black males being incarcerated and leaving their children without viable male role models. The problem’s been around seen Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about it in the late 1960s and remains. And, again, none of that’s particularly controversial.

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  21. Southern Hoosier says:

    James Joyner says: Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 15:35

    As to the notion that crime and race correlate in America, it’s hardly outrageous. Indeed, it’s undisputed. That most of that falls away in multivariate analysis makes it complicated, not racist.

    When it comes to crime and race, there is more to it than just the color of ones skin. A lot of it has to do with unemployment, lack of opportunities, bad home environment and lack of education. Things that would affect any group.

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  22. matt says:

    Or if the same increases the rate of accidental death or suicide.

    Am I just a heartless bastard because I really don’t care about suicide rates? Well assuming they are committing suicide in a way that doesn’t cause physical injuries to others.

    Years ago my fiancee actually had a white dude try to mug her in downtown Chicago. The great part is she was actually able to kick him in the nuts and run away while he spasmed in pain on the ground. Fortunately I’ve never been mugged but I think that might have something to do with the fact that I’m 6’2″ and about 200 lbs. Meanwhile my fiancee is all of 5 foot 2 or so and about 120 lbs soaking wet (very easy looking target)..

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  23. matt says:

    I would like to add to my last post some afterthoughts. I’m not trying to pretend I’m chuck norris in disguise or anything. I’ve been in some really bad situations where my size attracted unwanted attention. I’ve also managed to avoid some bad situations because of my tendency to keep my head on a swivel. Even now as I walk from building to building on a college campus in my relatively small town in southern Texas I find myself tracking all people within visual range. It’s just something I have done and it only got more acute after training. By no means am I calling anyone who has been mugged a pansy or an idiot because it really can happen to anyone and can be extremely painful in a multitude of ways. I just thought maybe someone would get a kick out of my errr fiancee’s kick..

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  24. Hello World! says:

    James, there was a great post on DCist a few months back that showed the crime rate in the district (600,000 people) and then the crime outlining the district outside the beltway (I mean the actual beltway) where 600,000 people flank the district. Crime outside the district was 25% greater than in the district. Crime in the Habla Valley never gets merged with crime in Prince Georges county but when it does all those little areas are far more dangerous than DC proper.

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  25. Hello World! says:

    Oh yeay, crime in downtown DC is very low, and in upper northwest (anything west of the park) its almost non-existant (unless you limp in drunks in Georgetown). DC’s crime rate is brought up mostly from Anacostia and Northeast but still suffers a reputation far worse than it deserves.

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  26. James Joyner says:

    @Hello World

    Amusingly, I live just around the corner from Hybla Valley. We’re at the nexus of some very toney suburbs and some near-slum neighborhoods, divided by Route 1. Here, the low income population is almost entirely Hispanic rather than black.

    And it’s hardly shocking that the parts of DC where it costs over $1 million to buy a small condo are relatively low crime, whereas the slums are high crime. That’s true everywhere.

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  27. Southern Hoosier says:

    If all else fails, Google it,

    Washington, DC Crime Reports, Crime News, and Crime Statistics

    http://spotcrime.com/dc/washington

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  28. John Burgess says:

    I don’t know where the idea that Georgetown is ‘safe’ is coming from. ‘Safer’ than some areas, for sure, but not safe. This year has seen several very violent muggings that ended up with people in intensive care and with permanent damage. All of them were within a block or so of either Wisconsin Ave. or M St, the two main arteries. Once you get off those crowded streets, you need to pay attention to your surroundings.

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  29. tom p says:

    @tom p: Arguing that there’s a biological determinant of crime is, absent substantial evidence, racism. Pointing out the undisputed fact that blacks commit a grossly disproportionate share of violent crime in our cities is not. Any more than noting that most of their victims, likewise, are black.

    So, James, why don’t you call Southern Hoosiers racist bullshit out for wht it is? I repeat, he said:

    The major factor is race, not population density. DC is 65% Black,

    That was what he said, and that was all he said in that post. It does not get much more racist than that (short of “Kill all the N*ggers!!!”)
    And yet, some how, you can not pull the trigger.

    As you note, a lot of this is a function of race and economic status being highly correlated. Some of it has to do with cultural norms, which are a legacy of a sordid and complicated history. Not to mention the vicious cycle of young black males being incarcerated and leaving their children without viable male role models. The problem’s been around seen Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote about it in the late 1960s and remains. And, again, none of that’s particularly controversial.

    Shorter version: Racism made blacks what they are, they are poor, BUT IT IS NOT MY FAULT. James none of this is your fault…. but SOMEBODY (i suspect several somebodies) IS at fault. And your washing your hands…. places you with Pontius Pilate.

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  30. tom p says:

    and by the way James, you have proved, once again, that you are neither a racist nor a blithering idiot.

    I am not surprised. I just don’t think you have fully thought thru this issue.

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  31. tom p says:

    “When it comes to crime and race, there is more to it than just the color of ones skin. A lot of it has to do with unemployment, lack of opportunities, bad home environment and lack of education. Things that would affect any group.”

    SH… You do not get off that easy. You are still a racist piece of sh*t.

    “The major factor is race, not population density. DC is 65% Black,”

    That is what you said, and you can’t take it back. You want to lay it off on the color of their skin, but you don’t quite have the balls to do it, do you?

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  32. tom p says:

    As you note, a lot of this is a function of race and economic status being highly correlated. Some of it has to do with cultural norms,

    Ohhh, I almost forgot,…

    The free market will fix this.

    (and james, my only point is that some of your prescriptions will not heal the disease)(no matter how much you wish it so)

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  33. Hello World! says:

    Southern Hoosier….Washington DC is NOT 65% black, it is 52% black so already your facts, well, aren’t facts. Also, compair Washington DC’s crime to that of Fairfax, Va and you will see – Washington DC has significantly less crime.

    Crime in Fairfax, VA

    As far as race, its all how you choose to draw the line. If someone would do a map of employed African Americans who commit crime I bet it wouldn’t show much. If we did a crime map of mostly white Pinellas Park, Florida (which is full of poor whites) you might think white people are responsible for most crime.

    One final point, a lot of people consider black guys walking around high to be crime, but white guys stumpling around Georgetown or 14th street to be having a good time. I don’t like to see either but there really are racial inqualities to how we view crime.

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  34. Southern Hoosier says:

    tom p says: Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 19:46

    SH… You do not get off that easy. You are still a racist piece of sh*t.

    The logical argument of a true liberal.

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  35. Southern Hoosier says:

    Top 10 most dangerous cities (highest rates of violent crime) in the United States and their corresponding demographic black populations:

    # 01) St. Louis MO – 53.81% black
    # 02) Detroit MI – 81.68% black
    # 03) Flint, MI – 53.27% black
    # 04) Compton, CA – 40.30% black
    # 05) Camden, NJ – 52.21% black
    # 06) Birmingham, AL – 73.46% black
    # 07) Cleveland, OH – 52.51% black
    # 08) Oakland, CA – 33.12 black
    # 09) Youngstown, OH – 47.22% black
    # 10) Gary, IN – 84.03% black

    ——-

    Top 10 most safest cities (lowest rates of violent crime) in the United States and their corresponding demographic black populations:

    # 01) Brick Township, NJ – 0.1% black
    # 02) Amherst, NY – 3.9% black
    # 03) Mission Viejo, CA – 1.6% black
    # 04) Newton, MA – 1.9% black
    # 05) Troy, MI – 2.09% black
    # 07) Irvine, CA – 1.8% black
    # 08) Cary, NC – 8.0% black
    # 09) Greece, NY – 2.88% black
    # 10) Coral Springs, FL – 17.9% black

    http://goo.gl/bmTZE

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  36. Southern Hoosier says:

    Yeah facts are racist when you don’t like them.

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  37. Hello World! says:

    Southern Hoosier…your laughable…check out the top 10 cities for unemployment…see any similarities for your top 10 list of high crime cities…lol, I figured out your not serious.

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  38. Southern Hoosier says:

    Hello World! says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 20:06

    Southern Hoosier….Washington DC is NOT 65% black, it is 52%

    @Hello World!
    Glad to see you are on top of things.

    An Interested Party says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 13:39

    Well of course Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier would chime in with that…by the way, DC’s black population is about 55%…

    James Joyner says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 15:35

    @TG Chicago: We don’t have instantaneous comment moderation, much less on Sundays. But there’s nothing particularity egregious there. DC’s black population was over70 percent in my memory but has been plummeting with gentrification

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  39. Hello World! says:

    Sorry…forgot to post the link to discredit southern hoosiers idiotic theories

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  40. Southern Hoosier says:

    Hello World! says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 20:31

    Sorry…forgot to post the link to discredit southern hoosiers idiotic theories

    Unemployment increased in 71% of the nation’s cities and towns with at least 20,000 residents, from 2000 to 2005-2007.

    So what does this have to do with crime?

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  41. Southern Hoosier says:

    Hello World! says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 20:29

    Southern Hoosier…your laughable…check out the top 10 cities for unemployment…see any similarities for your top 10 list of high crime cities

    Good point, unemployment has nothing do with crime, so it must be just race. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  42. Hello World! says:

    LOL…maybe you never took a statistics class, but for there to be 3 cities out of the thousands of cities that exist in this country where your list overlaps my list proves my point. Additionally, if we expanded to the top 20 crime cities and top 20 cities for unemployment I bet we would have more hits. Its statistically significant, now go study or do something to make yourself smarter..

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  43. An Interested Party says:

    It is little wonder that Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier linked to that particular piece, considering some of the comments there:

    Holy shit. It will be interesting to see how the monkey lovers try to explain that away.

    The numbers above are the reason town like Benton had signs at the city limits telling the blacks “dont let the sun set on your black ass.”
    Once you start lettinng spooks in you sign the town away to crime and filth.

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  44. Southern Hoosier says:

    An Interested Party says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 21:00

    It is little wonder that Grand Dragon Southern Hoosier linked to that particular piece, considering some of the comments there:

    Attack the messenger if you can’t refute the message.

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  45. An Interested Party says:

    The message was already refuted…

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  46. Herb says:

    Attack the messenger if you can’t refute the message.

    Well, Yglesias gave an approximate location of the attack (a local bakery), so I looked up the address and the census info. The area is 77.6% black.

    If your message is that black people commit most of the crime in that neighborhood, I say that black people do most of everything in that neighborhood. Big deal.

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  47. Southern Hoosier says:

    An Interested Party says:
    Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 22:28

    The message was already refuted…

    Believe what you like, but that doesn’t change the facts,

    Top 10 most dangerous cities (highest rates of violent crime) in the United States and their corresponding demographic black populations:

    Top 10 most safest cities (lowest rates of violent crime) in the United States and their corresponding demographic black populations:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  48. Southern Hoosier says:

    Herb says: Monday, May 16, 2011 at 02:14
    If your message is that black people commit most of the crime in that neighborhood, I say that black people do most of everything in that neighborhood. Big deal.

    Nice try. Now check the crime rate for that neighborhood.

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  49. Southern Hoosier says:

    “I hate to admit it, but I have reached a stage in my life that if I am walking down a dark street late at night and I see that the person behind me is white, I subconsciously feel relieved.” — Reverend Jesse Jackson

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  50. superdestroyer says:

    Poverty does not example why blacks commit crimes at 7 times the rate that whites commit crimes. If you look at the crime rates of large cities, cities with large Hispanics populations have lower crime rates versus cities with large black populations.

    I doubt if the Hispanic population in El Paso is somehow more affluent that the black population in Baltimore Maryland. Yet, the violent crime rate is much higher than the violent crime rate in
    El Paso.

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  51. Rick DeMent says:

    if you adjust for economic demographics I bet you will find the crime rate pretty equal between black and white. The fact is that whites tend to be richer as a whole. Try another experiment, track the crime rate between gays and straights and see what you can make out of that. Have fun.

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  52. TG Chicago says:

    @Joyner:

    Arguing that there’s a biological determinant of crime is, absent substantial evidence, racism.

    Given that that is exactly what Southern Hoosier is doing, I’m glad we can agree on the content of his posts. I look forward to an appropriate response to the racist messages in your comments section.

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  53. Herb says:

    Now check the crime rate for that neighborhood.

    No, no, you misunderstand how this works. You have the theory. You get the data.

    And here’s a hint…once you look up the astronomical crime rate for DC, you still have to establish that skin color is the cause. Until then, you’re just making the rookie mistaking of seeing a correlation and thinking cause.

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  54. george says:

    Making a generic statement “most A are B” isn’t racist (or prejudiced) if the stats back it up. For instance, saying “most rapists are men” isn’t really a sexist statement, simply because its true.

    However its a bit iffier if its stated “the major factor with A is B”, as that’s not just doing stats, its assuming that the stats represent an underlying causality. Which is what Southern Hoosier did.

    Saying “most rapists are men” isn’t sexists, saying “the major factor with rape is males” arguably is. Same with saying something like “the major factor with crime is blacks” – both suggest that the user thinks the problem is inherent in males and blacks, respectively, and there’s no proof of either, just correlation.

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  55. Southern Hoosier says:

    superdestroyer says:
    Monday, May 16, 2011 at 06:59

    Poverty does not example why blacks commit crimes at 7 times the rate that whites commit crimes.

    Careful, when you quote unpleasant facts like that, the liberal will call you a racist.They can’t stand thinks like that.

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  56. Southern Hoosier says:

    Herb says: Monday, May 16, 2011 at 11:21

    Now check the crime rate for that neighborhood.

    No, no, you misunderstand how this works. You have the theory. You get the data.
    And here’s a hint…once you look up the astronomical crime rate for DC,

    I understand just fine.

    blacks commit crimes at 7 times the rate that whites commit crimes.

    The 10 most dangerous cities have large Black populations. The revers is also true, The 10 safest cities have the fewest Blacks. Sounds more than just a coincidence.

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  57. george says:

    The 10 most dangerous cities have large Black populations. The revers is also true, The 10 safest cities have the fewest Blacks. Sounds more than just a coincidence.

    Did you know that there’s a very strong correlation between the number of fire fighters at a fire, and the size of the fire. More fire fighters means a bigger fire, fewer fire fighters means a smaller fire. Coincidence? I think not – obviously fire fighters cause bigger fires.

    You have to be careful in statistics – again, correlation is not causation.

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  58. Southern Hoosier says:

    george says: Monday, May 16, 2011 at 16:31

    Did you know that there’s a very strong correlation between the number of fire fighters at a fire, and the size of the fire. More fire fighters means a bigger fire, fewer fire fighters means a smaller fire. Coincidence? I think not – obviously fire fighters cause bigger fires.

    That was true in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, where firemen did start fires and burn books. Other than that, stupid statement don’t mean a thing.

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  59. george says:

    That was true in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, where firemen did start fires and burn books. Other than that, stupid statement don’t mean a thing.

    You’re correct, it doesn’t. Neither do the stats you mentioned by themselves. Which is the whole point about stats. You have to tie them to underlying mechanisms – I don’t know why people who don’t use stats professionally have such a hard time with this, but they do … correlation does not imply causation. Find a mechanism and your stats might mean something. Without one its meaningless.

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  60. [...] see that this subject has caught James Joyner’s eye as [...]

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