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By Sue Owen October 11, 2011

José Rodríguez says El Paso was named 'Safest Large City'

After mentioning El Paso in the Sept. 7, 2011, Republican presidential debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued: "It is not safe on that (Texas-Mexico) border."

Democratic state Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso countered in a press release two days later: "The reality is that El Paso was named the ‘Safest Large City in the United States’ in 2010, just one year after San Antonio, Houston and Dallas had the highest crime rates in the nation. In fact, last year, when El Paso reported just 7 murders, Perry’s home city of Austin reported 37," Rodríguez said. "Why isn’t he talking about that?"

Mild beef: Rodríguez aired slightly incorrect murder counts. In 2010, five murders occurred in El Paso, not seven, and 38 murders occurred in Austin, not 37, the cities’ police departments told us. Rodríguez spokeswoman Emily Amps Mora attributed the incorrect figures to typos. Also, five was El Paso’s lowest number of murders since 1965, and 38 was an unusually high number for Austin.

But was El Paso deemed the "Safest Large City" in the United States after other Texas cities led the nation in crime?

El Paso’s low crime rates have been noted for years. We looked at murder rates and overall crime rates, using FBI numbers, for the five Texas cities Rodríguez named: El Paso had the lowest rate per 100,000 residents in both categories each year from 2001 through 2010. In 2010, El Paso's murder rate was 0.8 murders per 100,000 residents. Rates for the other cities ranged from 4.8 for Austin to 11.8 for Houston.

The so-called "El Paso Miracle" has drawn outside attention, particularly as violence has increased next door in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, a city of 1.3 million which had more than 3,000 murders last year. The Texas Tribune, San Antonio Express-News and El Paso Times have recently written about El Paso’s low crime. Factors aired for the low crime rates include the presence of multiple federal agencies policing the border as well as the area’s high percentage of Hispanic residents (more than 80 percent), including Hispanic immigrants, a group described in a 2009 New York Times news story on El Paso’s safety as tending to be "cautious, law-abiding and respectful of authority."

But "Safest Large City" is still an eye-opening title; Amps Mora said she picked it up from a Nov. 21, 2010, City of El Paso press release. The release says: "The latest rating by CQ Press names El Paso as the 1st Safest City followed by Honolulu, HI as the 2nd Safest City and New York, NY as the 3rd Safest City in the United States. This rating, developed by CQ Press, compares cities with a population of more than 500,000 people."

CQ Press, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher, produces annual lists and books of crime statistics. However, it does not reward cities with "Safest" or "Most Dangerous" designations. In a Dec. 3, 2010, blog post, The Wall Street Journal said the annual reports stopped including such labels after CQ bought the reports’ publisher in 2007.

In an interview, Darrel Petry, spokesman for the El Paso Police Department, told us that the department solely used the "Safest Large City" designation in the Nov. 21 press release and did not repeat it, in part because of objections to CQ’s rankings immediately raised by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Regardless, El Paso did indeed top CQ’s 2010 "Lowest Crime Rate" list for cities with more than 500,000 residents.

Next, we looked at Rodríguez’s statement about San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, which Amps Mora told us was based on a 2010 Dallas Morning News blog post. The post spells out that among the nine U.S. cities over 1 million, the highest crime rates using 2009 numbers were in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Phoenix. We got similar results, using FBI 2009 data for the standard categories of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny theft and motor vehicle theft: San Antonio first, then Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, New York.

But again: These rankings are for cities over 1 million in population. There are only nine on that list (Chicago being excluded because it counted rapes differently) -- so it would be equally valid to say that in looking at lowest crime rates, San Antonio was No. 9 in the country.

So did San Antonio, Houston and Dallas have "the highest crime rates in the nation," as Rodriguez said? No, it turns out. Using crime rates per 100,000 in all cities for which the FBI collected data in 2009’s Uniform Crime Reports, the five cities with the highest crime rates were Vernon, Calif., population 90; Industry, Calif., population 930; Black Hawk, Colo., population 104; Teterboro, N.J., population 17; and Mackinac Island, Mich., population 456. San Antonio is the first of the Texas cities cited by Rodriguez to land on this list of all cities -- in 472nd place.

Now, of course, that list we just rattled off is misleading, even ridiculous, because of the huge spread of population sizes among "all" U.S. cities. For a more serious comparison, we looked over crime statistics for cities with more than 500,000 residents.The five with the highest crime rates per 100,000 residents in the 2009 numbers were Memphis, Tenn.; Detroit; Atlanta; San Antonio; and Columbus, Ohio.

And finally, if we use CQ Press’ rankings for cities over 500,000 -- a list adjusted with the company’s particular methodology -- the five highest-crime cities were Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Houston, the first Texas city to crop up, was No. 9.

As we completed this check, we circled back to Amps Mora, who said by email that the senator's point holds. Objectively, by crime rates, she said, El Paso is safer than bigger Texas cities that also are not on the Texas-Mexico border.

Our ruling

El Paso has had low crime rates, and its murder rates are considerably below those of the other cited cities.

But the statement is misleading in two meaningful ways. Only a City of El Paso press release named El Paso the nation’s "safest" large city--and its police department dropped the label. Also, the other Texas cities did not have the nation’s highest overall crime rates; that’s true only in comparison to a few huge cities.

Featured Fact-check

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

CQ Press, press release, "CQ Press City Crime Rankings 2010-2011," November 2010

El Diario, news article, "Juarez is World’s Most Violent for Third Year," Juarez, Chihuahua, May 1, 2011

City of El Paso, press release, "EL PASO, TEXAS – THE SAFEST CITY IN THE UNITED STATES FOR CITIES OVER 500,000 IN POPULATION," Nov. 21, 2010

El Paso Times, news articles, "El Paso crime rate down; homicides noticeably drop," Nov. 7, 2010;  "More Hispanics check ‘white’ on census,"  Feb. 21, 2011

Federal Bureau of Investigation, web post, Uniform Crime Reports for 2010 (accessed Oct. 1, 2011)

Los Angeles Times, news article, "Researcher projects 5,000 will die in Juarez in 2011," Jan. 24, 2011

The New York Times, news articles, "Two Sides of a Border: One Violent, One Peaceful," Jan. 22, 2009; "Rape Definition Too Narrow in Federal Statistics, Critics Say," Sept. 28, 2011

Telephone interview, Austin police Cmdr. Julie O’Brien, head of Violent Crimes, Sept. 30, 2011

Telephone interviews and email, El Paso Police public information officer Darrel Petry, Sept. 30, 2011, and Oct. 11, 2011

Reason, news article, "The El Paso Miracle," July 6, 2009

San Antonio Express-News, news article, "The Texas border may not be safe, but it’s safer than Houston, Austin or San Antonio," Sept. 19, 2011

Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Crime Report, for years 2005-2009

Texas state Sen. José Rodríguez, press release, "Rodriguez Reacts to Governor's Statements About Border Security," Sept. 9, 2011

Texas Tribune, news article, "Fact-Checking Perry on Border Violence Claim," Sept. 8, 2011

U.S. Conference of Mayors, press release, "U.S. Conference of Mayors Denounces Crime Rankings as Bogus, Damaging to Cities," Nov. 21, 2010

Video starting at 65:09, Republican presidential debate on MSNBC, Sept. 7, 2011

Wall Street Journal, the Numbers Guy blog,  "Criminologists Assign City Crime Rankings Low Score," Dec. 3, 2010

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