How Do We Pick the Safest Cities? Our Rankings Demystified

Our rankings demystified

We use FBI crime statistics data to rank cities in each state and across the country. To add extra insight and depth to that assessment, we include demographic information and the results of our proprietary State of Safety research study.

The "safest" cities rankings are intended to highlight cities with low crime rates and ignite conversation and action around how to make all cities and communities safer.

For the purposes of city ranking reports, the terms “dangerous” and “safest” refer explicitly to crime rates as calculated from FBI crime data—no other characterization of any community is implied or intended.

How the safest cities are ranked

We use the most up-to-date FBI crime data as the backbone of our reports. This means we rely on information that cities across the country report through the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program. If you don’t see your city listed, it could be due to incomplete UCR data or the failure to submit a report.

We know that crime statistics are only one measure of what makes any community safe.

We also use population thresholds for each state. We use US Census Bureau population data to identify the median city population in each state and report only on cities with populations above the median. This reduces the risk of outliers and lowers the likelihood of an extreme outlier skewing the data.

The FBI UCR data is just one way that cities report crime statistics, and we know that it may differ from other reports a city or police department submits. But, to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples, we’ve chosen to use this data as the basis of our "safest" cities reporting. Plus, this is the most consistent report available for most cities across the nation.

How we ranked the safest and most dangerous metro areas

To identify the safest and most dangerous metro areas in the country, we analyzed FBI crime report statistics and population data. We set a population threshold at 300,000 and higher. Metro areas that fell below that threshold were excluded, along with metros that failed to submit a complete crime report to the FBI.

Metro areas were ranked based on the number of reported violent crimes (aggravated assault, murder, rape, and robbery) and the number of reported property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft). To level the playing field, we calculated the rate of crimes per 1,000 people in each city. Weighting and normalization for the metro cities was applied the same way as for the "safest" cities in each state, described in more detail below.

How the safest cities of 2021 were decided

To identify the safest cities of 2021, we reviewed 2019 FBI crime report statistics (the most recent complete report available at the time of ranking) and population data.

Cities that fell below identified population thresholds—or that failed to submit a complete crime report to the FBI—were excluded from the report. Two states (Alabama and Hawaii) were also excluded from the rankings due to a large number of cities with incomplete (or no) crime reporting.

Calculating crime rates

Our rankings are based on both violent and property crime numbers. We looked at the number of reported violent crimes (aggravated assault, murder, rape, and robbery) in each city and the number of reported property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft).

Arson is excluded from the FBI’s property crime rates, so we excluded it as well.

To level the playing field, we calculated the rate of crimes per 1,000 people in each city. This makes it easier to directly compare the likelihood of these crimes occurring in cities with vastly different populations.

Both violent and property crime numbers were weighted equally. That means that a city with no violent crimes reported could end up lower on the list due to a higher property crime rate, and vice versa. We also standardized violent and property crime for each state before weighting.

Where the State of Safety report comes in

In addition to city rankings for 2021, we also conducted our third annual nationwide survey to find out Americans’ top safety concerns. Over the past three years, we’ve polled more than 15,000 Americans about their attitudes and perceptions around safety and crime.

This data helps us compare perceptions of safety and danger to the reality of crime statistics.

We added these correlations and other useful findings to our safest cities reports.

The survey

The State of Safety study used a 10-minute online survey that was fielded in August and September 2020. We spoke to 5,026 respondents across the US; at least 100 from every state. Responses were weighted for population. Based on the number of completions, the margin of error is ±1.4%.

The State of Safety survey asked participants to rate how concerned they were about each crime and safety issue using a scale from one to seven. One was “not at all concerned” and seven was “highly concerned." For comparison and ranking purposes, responses were grouped into three ranges:

  • Responses marked 7, 6, or 5 indicated high concern.
  • Responses marked 4 were considered neutral.
  • Responses marked 3, 2, or 1 indicated low concern.

Ranking concerns and perceptions

We first looked at the number of respondents who indicated high concern about their general safety and security on a daily basis. This gave us a baseline for the overall level of concern across the US and state by state.

From there, we compared responses from each state to see which safety concerns and crime issues had the highest and lowest levels of concern. We asked which safety concerns respondents worry about on a daily basis, as well as their concern about falling victim to different types of crime.

We also asked respondents what (if any) safety and security precautions they use to protect themselves and their property.

For the second time in the history of our report, we asked survey participants about their perceptions of and concern about gun violence. In the 2020 State of Safety survey, we singled out mass shootings. This year, we explored gun violence as a whole—based on many spontaneous answers in unaided questions last year that indicated high concern in this broader area.

In an effort to respond to timely events, we also asked survey participants about their perceptions of and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and police violence.

To find out what safety and crime issues people are most worried about, read the complete State of Safety report.

What we’re doing to improve our reports

In light of recent events and civil unrest across the country throughout 2020 and beyond, we've taken an even closer look at how we report on the communities we rank.

We recognize that using FBI crime data, as self-reported by local law enforcement agencies, is a one-dimensional and inadequate measure of our nation’s communities.

Crime data, on its own, misses many nuances that contribute to safety—or the lack thereof—including the persistent systemic issues of police violence, economic disparity, and racism.

Simple counts of violent and property crime incidents don't reflect important realities that impact both the perception and the reality of safety in neighborhoods and cities.

Including supplemental data for context

In our 2020 safest and most dangerous metro area rankings, we added supplemental data points to our reports, including the following factors:

  • Median income and poverty data
  • High school graduation rates
  • Redlining practices
  • Household access to high-speed internet
  • City budget allocations
  • Unemployment rates

We chose these data points because, over the past seven years, we’ve observed a correlation between socioeconomic factors and reported crime rates.

Responding to current events and trends

In 2019, we launched our sentiment survey, the State of Safety, to help us better understand and contextualize crime and how people across the country feel about safety—at home and in their community. We added this dimension to our safest city reports starting in 2020 as a first step toward improving the relevance and veracity of these rankings.

Each year that we’ve conducted the survey, we’ve made modifications and additions in order to respond to changing times, attitudes, and trends. For the 2021 State of Safety survey we narrowed our focus to the most impactful crime issues and added questions about the pandemic and other trending concerns (including package theft and police violence).

Seeking more diverse insights

In our 2021 State of Safety survey we also prioritized collecting a representative demographic sample of Americans, seeking both economic and racial/ethnic diversity among survey respondents.

We think it’s important to have a representative sample when it comes to addressing perceptions of and concerns about safety and crime across the US and in each state. Ultimately, we chose not to use this demographic information to compare and contrast data in our full report because we wanted to avoid harmful generalizations of any demographic group or community.

We will continue to seek deeper understanding about the assets and challenges within the cities we rank in an effort to move the conversation beyond crime. We endeavor to engage in discourse that addresses the underlying issues that can either help or hurt the safety and wellbeing of a community. We also seek to offer solutions to help make individuals, families, and larger communities safer.

Endnotes

Gun violence

SafeWise uses data from the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) to track gun violence incidents. We also adhere to the GVA definitions for mass shootings and officer-involved incidents.

Mass shooting definition: “If four or more people are shot or killed in a single incident, not involving the shooter, that incident is categorized as a mass shooting based purely on that numerical threshold.”

Officer-involved incidents: Safewise combined multiple GVA reports to determine the total number of officer-involved incidents per year. The numbers in our report represent the total number of officers injured, officers killed, subjects injured, and subjects killed in the identified year.

All GVA data is current as of the date last accessed. The GVA regularly changes and updates its data as incidents are examined for accuracy.

Rape offense data

In 2013, the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program revised the definition for collecting rape offense data. The legacy definition only included incidents of “forcible” rape. The new definition doesn’t include the term “forcible.” Instead, any carnal knowledge (or penetration) without the consent of the victim now meets the FBI UCR rape offense definition.

Most states use the new definition to report rape offenses; however, the UCR tally of total rape offenses nationwide still uses the legacy definition. This creates a distinct variance between the number of rapes reported using the new definition and the US number that only includes the legacy definition. Using the current definition, rape offenses are typically the second-most reported violent crime offense, as noted in the individual state data in this report.

Package theft

Although package theft, if represented at all, is included in the FBI UCR data among larceny-theft incidents, SafeWise recognizes it as a subcategory that is growing across the country. We have adopted the definition of package theft as identified in a recent American Journal of Criminal Justice study.

Package theft definition: “Taking possession of a package or its contents, outside of a residence or business, where it has been commercially delivered or has been left for commercial pick-up, with intent to deprive the rightful owner of the contents.”

Sources

FBI: Uniform Crime Reporting Program, “2019 Crime in the United States,” Accessed March 8, 2021.

US Census Bureau, "Income In the Past 12 Months," Accessed November 9, 2020.

Best Places, “Find a Place Search Tool,” Accessed January 6, 2021.

SafeWise, “State of Safety survey,” Accessed March 8, 2021.

Gun Violence Archive, “Past Summary Ledgers,” Accessed January 6, 2021.

Gun Violence Archive, “General Methodology,” Accessed March 8, 2021.

Melody Hicks, Ben Stickle, Joshua Harms, American Journal of Criminal Justice, “Assessing the Fear of Package Theft,” January 04, 2021. Accessed March 8, 2021.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past eight. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime reports and spotting trends. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, NPR, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips.
  • slackdammit

    Without pointing fingers or naming names, I’ll say there are particular ethnic groups who are far more violent than others. When I need to evaluate a particular place, I just check the demographics.

    • matt hewz

      Sadly that is generally the most accurate guage.

  • John Holmes

    Ms. Edwards, may I say that, all the naysayers notwithstanding, I appreciate all the work that went into compiling this. One generality that should be obvious: of course (!) small towns in rural areas will be safer than urban areas. And, no doubt there are hundreds of towns under 2,000 population in Oklahoma, for example, that will apparently be extremely safe. But that’s not of interest to the vast majority, but perhaps of great interest to someone considering a safe place to retire.
    It would be helpful to know whether the population figures are taken
    from metropolitan areas vs city proper when considering a larger city but it’s not that difficult to deduce many valuable conclusions from the information provided.

  • David Harrington

    You draw your rankings in large part from the annual FBI CRIME REPORT, but you fail to mention that the same report cautions against making simplistic rankings based on the data reported. There are simply too many variables for one to consider. For example, some states, and Vermont is one of them, does not consider a criminal death by traffic crash a homicide, so these are not included in the FBI report. In my view, quality of life crimes should also be factored into consideration. If a neighborhood is plagued with vandalism, noise, drunk and disorderly conduct, etc., people feel far less “safe” in these areas.

  • David Brian

    I wouldn’t believe the FBI if every agent swore on a stack of Bibles the information of correct.

  • Kent Borcherding

    There is a serious flaw in this ranking. Take Shawnee for instance, it was reported as the most dangerous city in Oklahoma by population. Shawnee is unique because although the population is only reported as 31K, It has over 100K people in Shawnee everyday. Therefore the number of people in town is over 3 times the population. Taking just this 1 aspect into consideration would now lower Shawnee to one of the safer cities. I think you will find small bedroom communities without allot of business and industry will always incorrectly show the safest just using crime states and population as the yardstick.

    • Rebecca Edwards

      Thanks for your feedback. We are always looking for ways to improve our rankings and methodology with the information and resources that are available to us. In 2020, although we will still use FBI and US Census Bureau data, we are also layering in data from our independent State of Safety research study and, as possible, will be reaching out to residents and law enforcement in some of the cities to add insights such as yours to our reporting.

      • E Van Denburgh

        Rebecca Edwards,
        My apologies but I still do not understand how you rank while I think I understand where the data and ratios come from. I added the violent and property crimes/1,000 residents and Stockton had a lower combination of 51.7 than Santa Monica which had a 59.7, with Santa Monica having a ranking of 227 vs. Stockton of 229. Please help me understand how final rankings determined. Thank-you

  • Chris

    I disagree with this analysis completely, reports based completely off ucr where agencies choose what they report to FBI, they do not have to report as well. Dumfries having zero violent crime is completely inaccurate. Request that you gather more factual data from these organizations such as direct reporting statistics, not UCR if you going to make this kind of report

  • StevenCee

    This list is pretty useless, as It doesn’t use the same criteria as your “Most Dangerous Cities”, so you can’t even begin to compare them, it’s apples & oranges.
    These are all small towns or suburbs, not “cities”. Why make 14,000 the minimum for the dangerous ones, but even the tiniest population for this list? It sure would be nice to know which are the safest COMPARABLY SIZED cities as your dangerous list…