The United States is in the waning weeks of an exceedingly bloody summer. Homicides were up 37% from May to June in 20 large U.S. cities. In New York, the murder rate is up 30% over 2019, and Chicago just suffered its most dangerous month since the early 1990s, including 106 people shot and 14 killed in a single weekend.
However, some perspective: crime overall is down in the United States compared to this time last year, and violent crime has been on a downward trajectory for three decades; in fact, since 1993, the violent crime rate has been cut by nearly three-fourths, from 80 per 100,000 to 23.
Still, there are flash points. Let’s examine the ten most dangerous cities in America, based on rates of violent crime (which includes murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault). Since sources for such figures vary dramatically – often driven by political bias – we’ll rely on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recent comprehensive figures, from calendar year 2018.
10 Stockton, California
Mayor: Michael Tubbs (Democrat)
Edging out wrongdoing rivals Rockford, Illinois and Albuquerque, New Mexico, the seldom booming and recently bankrupt city of Stockton, California is the little city that could… commit violent crime. Though America’s most populous state has plenty of larger metropolises – Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento – the north-central California city of 312,000 is the only one that cracks the national top ten, with 1,386 violent crimes per 100,000 residents.
Home to the oldest university in California, and an original hub of the mid-19th century Gold Rush that gave the San Francisco 49ers its name, Stockton fell on hard times after the 2008 financial crisis; in 2018, the city’s unemployment rate of 7% was substantially higher than national figures; post-COVID, it has since soared to almost 15% compared to 10% nationwide.
Still, as showcased in the 2020 documentary “Stockton on My Mind,” the city is trying in earnest to emerge from its downturn. Led by the city’s youngest-ever (and first Black) mayor, 30-year-old Michael Tubbs, Stockton has, among other initiatives, solicited private funds to experiment with a basic income plan; organized former prison inmates to keep peace among gangs; and procured donations for scholarships for the city’s poorest high school students.
9 Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Mayor: Tom Barrett (D)
As shock rocker Alice Cooper knows, Milwaukee is an Algonquin word meaning “the good land.” Unfortunately, its appearance on this list might suggest otherwise.
While recently overshadowed by riots in nearby Kenosha, its smaller sibling 40 miles to the south, Milwaukee’s population of 594,000 makes it Wisconsin’s largest city. Its alarming rate of 1,413 violent crimes per 100,000 residents also makes it the state’s most dangerous.
Searching for underlying causes, researchers have pointed to a racial disparity that, even for America, is extreme: Milwaukee has been deemed the country’s most segregated city. Regardless of ethnicity, though, the city’s double-the-national-average poverty rate is also a key factor, as is its ongoing struggles with America’s pervasive opioid epidemic.
Promisingly, many Milwaukee youth are collaborating with community leaders to fight back against the violence, and an organization called 414Life, so-named for the city’s telephone area code, has introduced a public health-driven approach dubbed Milwaukee Blueprint for Peace.
8 Little Rock, Arkansas
Mayor: Frank Scott Jr. (D)
There’s really no nice way to put it: Little Rock is a downtrodden city in a substandard state. Arkansas is ahead of only West Virginia and Mississippi in median household income, and only those two states plus bastion of brainpower Louisiana have a more poorly-educated populace – though in Arkansas’ defense Alabama is within striking distance. Go Razorbacks!
Little Rock is Arkansas’ capital, as well as its largest city; in fact, it is Arkansas’ only city whose population, 197,000, has six digits – exemplifying its sparse population and general lack of appeal. The city’s violent crime rate of 1,446 per 100,000 is nearly quadruple the national average, and its property crime – burglary, larceny, etc. – is even more egregious: at an absurd 6,547 properties crimes per 100,000 residents, Little Rock ranks third among U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more, and first among any other city on this list.
More than most other small cities, Little Rock’s crime problems have been linked to a gang-related incidents including groups affiliates with the Bloods and their longstanding rivals, the Crips. Gangs have a stubborn history in the city; following the shocking 1994 documentary “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock,” the city quadrupled its police force and gang activity diminished. Unfortunately the initial progress has proven short-lived in a city with few resources and even fewer opportunities.
7 Cleveland, Ohio
Mayor: Frank G. Jackson (D)
As Drew Carey can attest, Cleveland rocks. Unfortunately it also murders, assaults and rapes. Its violent crime rate of 1,449 per 100,000 residents is just a tick above Little Rock’s and, similarly, four times the national average.
Multiple factors add up to Cleveland’s unacceptable violent crime statistics. For starters, the city has lost more than a quarter of its population since 1990, shrinking from over half a million to under 385,000. Not surprisingly, those who left behind Cleveland’s deteriorating living conditions tended to have the means to move to the suburbs, while still commuting to careers in the city’s thriving tech and healthcare sectors.
What remains, then, are some of the poorest neighborhoods not only in Ohio but the entire nation. An otherworldly (perhaps “third-worldly” would be more apt) 39% of Clevelanders live below the poverty level. The childhood poverty rate is a heartbreaking 50.5%, higher than any other American city with at least 250,000 residents.
Realistically, there is little chance of significantly reducing crime in a place with poverty as pervasive as Cleveland’s. To better understand its intricacies, a recent study broke Cleveland and other Ohio metro areas into neighborhoods. What they found was predictably gloomy: reverse gentrification (sometimes called “white flight), deepening impoverishment in previously concerning areas, and entrenched, generational poverty in places with longstanding median income crises.
6 Kansas City, Missouri
Mayor: Quinton Lucas (D)
Kansas City is about as quintessentially American as a city can get. A cattle town dating back to its founding, the city is home to some of the most renowned steakhouses in the country, many of which are a stone’s throw from the slaughterhouse providing the day’s meats. Kansas City is also the proud home of the Negro League Baseball Hall of Fame, a tribute to some of the greatest players in America’s greatest game – ones kept from competing in the white Major Leagues until the late 1940s.
Unfortunately, Kansas City also has a rampant crime problem, with a violent crime rate of 1,590 per 100,000. That’s a terrifying 318% above the national average. Homicides have been a particular peril, with Kansas City suffering a five-year run of record or near-record murders, typically via firearms.
Troublingly, most Kansas City murders go unsolved, which deteriorates the deterrence for future violent crime. A recent federal crime-solving effort—named Operation Legend after four-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in his bed – has been largely welcomed by local and state officials, despite some civil rights organizations expressing opposition to federal agents investigating local crimes.
5 St. Louis, Missouri
Mayor: Lyda Krewson (D)
Missouri is the only state with two entries on this list. Unfortunately this is one intrastate rivalry Missourians could do without.
St. Louis is a city of extreme dichotomy: On one end of the spectrum, the so-called Gateway to the Midwest is a major economic hub and home to ten Fortune 500 companies, including prescription drug management giant Express Scripts Holding and Anheuser Busch, producer of the country’s most popular beer, Budweiser. In fact, its pre-COVID metro area unemployment rate was a miniscule 3.4%.
However, low unemployment has done little to curb violence in St. Louis, with a gasp-worthy rate of 1,800 violent crimes per 100,000 residents – nearly five times the national average. And were this list confined to murder, St. Louis’ rank would jump from #5 to #1: in 2018, the city suffered 187 homicides, a rate of 61 per 100,000 people, making it the homicide capital of the U.S.
Both gun violence and violent crime solve rates have exacerbated this problem. Last summer, about a dozen children – some just toddlers – were shot and killed in St. Louis and, as of late August, only one arrest had been made.
4 Baltimore, Maryland
Mayor: Jack Young (D)
Unlike its urban wasteland portrayal on “The Wire,” widely considered one of the best television series ever, Baltimore has plenty of upsides. For starters, Nearly one-third of the city’s buildings are designated as historic, more than any other U.S. city. The defense of one such building, Fort McHenry, was the inspiration for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which a century later became the USA’s national anthem. Nearby, Baltimore’s most celebrated neighborhood, Inner Harbor, draws 14 million visitors each year to marquee attractions like the National Aquarium and Camden Yards, a brilliant ballpark that started a retro revolution in baseball stadiums.
But alas, “The Wire” didn’t have it all wrong. Baltimore’s 2018 body count of 309 gave is a homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 residents, second only to St. Louis; its robbery rate of a jarring 837 per 100,000 – the nation’s highest – means sometime living in Baltimore for a year has nearly a 1% chance of being violently mugged (robbery is, criminally speaking, using force or the threat of force to steal something from another person, hence its inclusion in violent crime statistics).
Overall, Baltimore’s violent crime rate is 1,833 per 100,000 – a figure that has spiked precipitously in just the past five years. Among the efforts to curb the violence is a police plan to respond more quickly to emergency calls deemed likely precursors to violence.
3 Birmingham, Alabama
Mayor: Randall Woodfin (D)
At the turn of the 20th Century, the city that remains Alabama’s most populous developed remarkably rapidly from a collection of small houses and businesses to one of the most impressive downtown areas in the country. The makeover was so expedient and extensive that it earned Birmingham its nickname: The Magic City. Despite being dismissed by many as a “racist backwater” – which tends to happen when in the 1960s the mayor (Democrat Albert Boutwell) turns police dogs and fire hoses on black children. Today the city of just over 200,000 is one of the nation’s largest banking centers.
But Birmingham’s Southern charm is decidedly dimmed by a rampant violent crime infestation. The city’s violent crime rate of 1,912 per 100,000 residents is more than five times the national average. Aggravated assaults comprise a particularly high percentage of this violence, accounting for about 70% of the total.
Fortunately for Birminghamers, the city may soon be dropping off this ignominious top ten list. According to its police department, violent crime in Birmingham is down 26% so far this year. Rape and robbery have been halved, though the homicide rate saw only a slight decrease. How much of this is due to pandemic-related lockdowns (and therefore likely to spike post-COVID) remains to be seen.
2 Memphis, Tennessee
Mayor: Jim Strickland (D)
Another Southern city with a checkered history earns this list’s undesirable silver medal: violence is just as much a part of Memphis’s identity as blues music, barbeque and FedEx.
Violence in Memphis is punctuated by one of the costliest murders in American history. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in April 1968, riots broke out in major cities across the country whose effects are still felt more than half a century later. The loss of so charismatic a leader, combined with the sheer amount of inner-city infrastructure burned and looted in the resulting chaos, were a one-two punch that stalled and then shattered the 60s Civil Rights movement.
Since then, Memphis has become ground zero for some of the worst firearm violence in the country. Its 2018 Its violent crime rate of 1,943 per 100,000 – an appalling 411% of the national average – included 186 homicides, more than half of which involved guns.
Memphis’ protracted shooting spree has prompted the US Attorney General’s office to launch a firearm reduction program in the city. Dubbed Project Guardian, the effort includes providing federal resources and manpower to mitigate violent crime, enhance background checks for gun purchasers and crack down on buyers who lie on firearm applications.
1 Detroit, Michigan
Mayor: Mike Duggan (D)
The city that brought the world muscle cars, MoTown and Marshall Mathers is also America’s most dangerous. Detroit is the only city in the country with a violent crime rate exceeding 2,000 per 100,000 residents – 428% above the national average.
Punctuating Detroit’s unsavory distinction is an urban flight to severe that the term “Decline of Detroit” has its own Wikipedia entry. Detroit has seen one of the sharpest population declines over the last half-century. At its 1950s peak, the city was home to 1.8 million people. A cascading set of factors, most notably the gutting of automotive sector manufacturing jobs, has driven residency under 700,000. That’s not mere attrition – it’s a “get out while you can” death spiral in which those remaining tend to be desperate. More than a third live in poverty and, more ominously, the COVID-19 pandemic has seen Detroit’s unemployment rate rise from an already-high 9.8% to a five-alarm-fire 39.2%.
When a city loses more than half its population, policing becomes another problem. Large swaths of the city contain near-empty blocks with abandoned, decrepit buildings serving as breeding grounds for drug-dealing and violent crime. It is hard to see hope in such a haunted, heartbroken city that once literally drove its region’s economy.