Sunday, March 22, 2009

Statistics and Stereotypes

(Update: I was corrected in the comments by people with better statistics. I am now convinced that Oakland has a severe crime problem relative to other cities, and I'm leaving this post up to show you that if you still believe Oakland does not have a crime problem, you should change your mind like I did. Go here.)

Of course I'm adding my own name to the list of Oaklanders remembering Officers Romans, Sakai and Dunakin, and hoping that Officer Hege recovers.

Statistics time. The idea that Oakland is a dangerous city is prevalent, and somewhat misleading. That I can say this after an outrage like yesterday
is backed up by numbers. I'm originally from the Philly suburbs. Below is a table of Philadelphia and Oakland violent crime rates per capita, relative to the national average:

CITYMurderForcible RapeRobberyAggravated Assault All Violent Crime

That I can claim even the day after these killings that Oakland isn't that bad is backed up by statistics, but that I have to say it is because of the high profile of the event. Humans are bad at thinking about statistics but good at thinking about human drama. Look at those numbers again. What's your association with Philly - forcible rape? Robbery? Both higher than Oakland! No, your association is cheesesteaks and the Liberty Bell, the virtues of which are both extolled by proud (ex-)Philadelphians, many more of whom move to Oakland than the other way around. Are Philadelphians deluded and naive, or are Oaklanders buying into the negative image of our own city exacerbated by high-profile tragedies like this one?

Because of these shootings, even if you're an Oakland cop, you have a 0.5% chance per year of getting shot in the line of duty. I'm not diminishing the heroic burden the OPD bears, but putting a number on it puts it in perspective. My probability of getting shot is very close to zero. And chances are, so is yours, unless you live in certain parts of the city which we all want to make safer.

People across California and the country just had their stereotypes of Oakland reinforced, and this isn't helping the city's residents or businesses. Horrific as it is, we have to not only work on the city, we have to defend Oakland's reputation. That's why when friends elsewhere in the Bay Area and the country make generalizations or tasteless jokes at Oakland's expense, I stop them their tracks. Not only do I not think it's funny, I won't be a passive party in reinforcing a negative image for the city.

On the media criticism front, not to kick the Chronicle while it's down, but their article on the shooting was rambling and disorganized, and I'm glad to see the Oakland Tribune stepping up with excellent coverage. I'm glad to see that we can expect (as we should) that our own city's paper covers events here better than the Chronicle. To this end, once again props to Zennie for doing original reporting and getting out there on other media. The vast majority of bloggers, including myself, are opinion jockeys whose only real journalism comes from links to original reporting and data we find elsewhere. It's exactly because there aren't many Zennies that losing traditional print media with professional journalists is a disaster.


  1. Unfortunately, those numbers are quite old, and come from a period when Oakland had a much lower crime rate than it has for the past several years. Using current numbers, the comparison looks like this:

    Murder per 10,000 residents:
    Oakland: 2.99
    Philadelphia: 2.70

    Rape per 10,000 residents:
    Oakland: 7.45
    Philadelphia: 6.59

    Robbery per 10,000 residents:
    Oakland: 86.18
    Philadelphia: 70.76

    Aggravated Assault per 10,000 residents:
    Oakland: 92.56
    Philadelphia: 66.04

    Total Violent Crime per 10,000 residents:
    Oakland: 189.17
    Philadelphia: 146.11

  2. You picked one city, but even for that comparison, federal stats for 2007 show Oakland had a third more violent crime and about 50% more property crime than Philadelphia.
    (Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, January-June 2008, Table 4 by way of )

  3. Point made, and thanks for taking the time to find more recent stats. My sense is that Oakland is at least not significantly worse than Philadelphia, but I always defer to statistics over "sense". So it really is worse here, abd the problem gets worse too: what do we do to improve Oakland and improve its reputation? It's becoming very hard for me to convince people that there are good parts of Oakland.

    I had originally included a comment about the idiots heckling the police on the scene, but I found I couldn't write about it without becoming so angry that it turned into a string of insults against these morons. See, I did it again. That attitude is a disease, and it's huge part of Oakland's problem, and I'm not sympathetic to arguements justifying it.