Take a Bite Out of Crime

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America can be a dangerous place sometimes. Knowing what's out there can keep business ahead of the bad guys.

After gaining admission to Harvard's doctoral program in education this year, Dana Wright turned to an even more difficult task: finding an apartment in Boston's tight housing market. On a limited budget, the 27-year-old Atlanta native was looking for something quiet and safe. "I knew I'd be keeping long hours, after classes and studying, so I wanted a place where I felt comfortable coming home late at night," she says.

Wright will be happy to know that her apartment-hunting instincts served her well, as her new home is located in a census tract with below-average risk of criminal activity, according to data from CAP Index, Inc. This Exton, Pennsylvania-based security firm has devised a computerized system to determine the crime risks in any particular neighborhood. Rather than just using the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, which are subject to the vagaries of local reporting methods, CAP Index uses 21 demographic variables which they believe determine a neighborhood's crime levels. In the interest of readers who may be considering a new home, relocating a business, or getting a Doberman for Christmas, CAP Index has created a risk map of the United States, by census tract.

A quick look at the map reveals that the Midwest and Northeast tend to be lower on the risk scale for murders, rapes, or robberies, than the South and the West. (CAP Index primarily measures the risk for these three crimes, although assaults and property crimes can be indexed using similar techniques.) What are the underlying demographic causes of this geographic disparity? CAP Index can't reveal all of the factors they use, as this complex forecasting model is their stock-in-trade, but they do acknowledge that the factors are related to the "social disorder" of a neighborhood, which CAP Index believes leads to crime. These include the average income of an area's residents, the transience of the population, housing conditions, age of residents, education levels of residents, and family structure.

A state such as Louisiana, which the map shows as having many areas with higher than average risk, can help illustrate this correlation. Louisiana has a median income of $30,313, compared with the national median of $39,831. It has a large number of men aged 18 to 24, who account for 5.2 percent of the population there, the seventh highest percentage of any state in the nation. As 90 percent of violent crimes are committed by men, and half by people under age 25, this "is the most important factor to look at when determining the demographics associated with crime," according to Dr. Rosemary Erickson, a sociologist and security consultant. Louisiana also has the eighth highest number of high school dropouts per capita of any state. While many safe areas exist in Louisiana, these factors may help explain why residents of many places in the Pelican State have a higher than average risk of being victimized, according to the CAP Index map.

The regional incidence of crime, as reported to the FBI, matches the CAP Index analysis. Last year, there were 4,932 criminal offenses per 100,000 people in the South; 4,328 in the West; 4,041 in the Midwest; and 3,233 in the Northeast. One factor that may help explain lower rates of crime in the Midwest is the large percentage of people who live in suburban or rural areas, which tend to have less crime than cities. In 1998, for every 1,000 residents, aged 12 and over, in urban areas, there were 49 crimes against persons, and 274 crimes against property, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This compares with 37 personal crimes and 205 property crimes in suburban areas; and 28 personal crimes and 174 property crimes in rural areas. In states such as Nebraska and Iowa, this can be seen in the vast expanses of low-risk, low-population areas, dotted by higher-risk areas in metropolitan centers such as Omaha and Des Moines.

The Northeast has more people living in urban centers, but it also has the greatest per capita number of police officers, which may help explain its lower crime rates. There are 2.9 officers per 1,000 inhabitants in the Northeast, compared with 2.8 in the South, 2.3 in the Midwest, and 1.8 in the West. Law enforcement officers in the Northeast also "cleared" (turned a suspect over to prosecutors) the highest percentage of criminal cases - at 24 percent - of any region. In the South, West, and Midwest, police cleared 22 percent, 21 percent, and 20 percent of reported offenses, respectively.

It is important to note that risk can change dramatically over a small geographic area, which is why CAP Index looks at the zip code, census tract, or even block-group level, to provide clients with a true picture of risk levels. "In urban settings, a fairly safe neighborhood can be separated from a dangerous one by just a few blocks," says John Skowronski of ADT Security Systems. Cook County, Illinois, for example, contains census tracts with index ratings from zero to 2,000.

Many Fortune 500 companies use CAP Index ratings when considering new business locations, what type of security measures to implement, and how to safeguard against premises-security liability lawsuits. Marriott International, for example, uses CAP Index ratings to help allocate security resources for new hotels.

The recently opened Brooklyn Marriott is located in a densely populated, economically and socially diverse area. It registers a CAP Index score of 555, meaning guests and employees are initially 5.5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than at the average American locale. But rather than avoiding urban areas such as this, Marriott has implemented security measures, such as creating a single entrance and exit that provides access control. "Rather than using this data to figure out where not to go, we've used it constructively," says Chad Callaghan, Marriott's vice-president of loss prevention. "We're proud to be in the forefront of urban pioneering."

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