NIAGARA FALLS —
A company that specializes in the analysis of crime, education and real estate data has ranked the city of Niagara Falls as the 51st "most dangerous" city in America.
The website, Neighborhoodscout.com, run by the Massachusetts-based geographic research company, Location, Inc., based its findings on a review of 2010 crime statistics from the FBI.
The ranking focused solely on the rate of violent crimes, including offenses like forcible rape, murder and non-negligent manslaughter, armed robbery, aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon. The list excluded communities with populations below 25,000.
According to the company's analysis, the chance of becoming a victim of violent crime in Niagara Falls is one in 82, compared with one in 255 statewide, including New York City.
Niagara Falls ranked lower than neighboring Buffalo, which came in at No. 35 on the list. The chances of becoming a victim of violent crime in Buffalo was one in 72.
The most dangerous city in the country, according to the website, was East Saint Louis, Ill. where the chances of being victimized by a violent crime in 2010 were one in 16.
The crime data analyzed by NeighborhoodScout come from uniform crime reports collected by the FBI from 17,000 local law enforcement agencies, including those in Niagara County. Dr. Andrew Schiller, CEO and founder of Location, Inc., said his company's "most dangerous" list was based on the most recent final, non-preliminary data available, which is from the year 2010.
"This list is looked at primarily by consumers — people who are interested in safety but also are prospective home buyers and owners," Schiller said. "In some cases, it's also looked at by people who are in business or industry."
Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John Chella said he looked at the violent crime statistics used to compile the "most dangerous" cities list and found them to be "dead on" for 2010.
He suggested that crime statistics compiled since then will show that his department has been doing a better job of addressing crime of all types.
The city submits incident reports monthly to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services' Operation Impact program, which provides grant funding and other assistance to 17 communities statewide, including Niagara Falls. Those statistics are charted by the FBI as well.
Chella's review of statistics from the city's incident based reporting shows overall crime declined by 0.4 percent from the end of 2010 through Dec. 31, 2011. During that same period, Chella said the statistics show violent crime was down 4.1 percent, while property crime showed a slight increase, up 0.5 percent.
"It's a roller coaster from year to year, but I will tell you in 2011 I'm more than pleased with our numbers," Chella said.
Chella said the statistics for the first quarter of 2012 look promising as well. From Jan. 1 to March 31, Chella said total crime is down 11.6 percent when compared to the same three-month period last year. Over that same timeframe, Chella said violent crime has been reduced by 22.3 percent and property crime has decreased 9.2 percent.
"We're making strides each and every day. I really believe that," Chella said.
While the city's crime ranking may well show an improvement in future years, the statistics currently available on the Neighborhoodscouts.com website do not paint a pretty picture of the community from a public safety standpoint.
A synopsis of the company's findings found on the website suggests that Niagara Falls experiences one of the higher murder rates in the nation when compared cities and towns for all sizes of population, from largest to smallest.
The company's analysis also suggests Niagara Falls ranks high in terms of property crime, including burglary, larcenies over $50, motor vehicle thefts and arson. According to the website, the chance of becoming a victim of a property crime in Niagara Falls is one in 17 compared to one in 51 statewide.
The site applies a crime index of 3 to Niagara Falls, meaning it considers the city safer than just 3 percent of cities included in the comparison across America.
"With a population of 50,193, Niagara Falls has a combined rate of violent and property crime that is very high compared to other places of similar population size," the website noted. "Regardless of whether Niagara Falls does well or poorly compared to all other cities and towns in the U.S. of all sizes, compared to places with a similar population, it fares badly. Few other communities of this size have a crime rate as high as Niagara Falls.
Population does play a role in the rankings in that people are more likely to become victimized by crime if they live in an area where there are fewer people. Schiller noted that New York City and Boston are not found anywhere on the "most dangerous" list, in part, because of its crime rate per 1,000 residents. It explains part of the reason why a large city like Philadelphia (No. 52) ranks lower on the "most dangerous" cities list than a community like Niagara Falls.
"Philly is much larger and there are more crimes there, but the crime rate per 1,000 people there is lower," Schiller said.
Several of the cities found on the "most dangerous" list share similarities to Niagara Falls in that they have experienced decline in both economic activity and population in recent years.
Schiller pointed to Harrisburg, Pa., as an example. The community has experienced a significant reduction in population and a corresponding increase in its violent crime rate in recent years.
"The people who can move do," Schiller said. "The people who can't don't and the crimes are either perpetrated on them or by them or both."
Chella cited economic and social factors in Niagara Falls as factors that must be considered when having a discussion about local crime rates. He noted that the community continues to be impacted by things like unemployment, poverty and low educational attainment. He said an indication of the impact of societal factors on crime in the city is the number of larcenies committed each year, which Chella admitted continues to trend higher than he would like.
"All these contribute to a situation where individuals commit crimes when they may not normally do so under optimal conditions," Chella said.
Mayor Paul Dyster defended the police department's work under Chella, saying he believes it has made strides in terms of combating crime in general and, specifically, offenses involving gang activity, guns and drugs.
Dyster said he personally does not consider Niagara Falls to be an "unsafe place" for law-abiding citizens, arguing that the bulk of the statistics involved in the "most dangerous" cities analysis involved gang members, drug dealers and other members of the criminal element who are more prone to instances of violence.
"I live in downtown Niagara Falls," Dyster said. "I've lived in Niagara Falls most of my life. I don't go around living in fear. I don't feel like the city is an unsafe place to live."
Dyster added there's always more that can be done to combat crime in the community and said his administration will continue to support Chella and his department as it implements programs aimed at improving public safety in neighborhoods and business districts.
"I think we are putting the resources into the programs that we need to address the issues that have the potential to threaten our residents in the future," Dyster added. "We're going to stay on top of it."
Dyster agreed with Chella that economic and social factors play a role in community crime rates and suggested that Niagara Falls is no exception. He said he has always believed that the best way to reduce crime in the city is to stimulate the economy so more residents have jobs and fewer homes are abandoned.
"I've often said that really to me the most important economic development program we have is public safety," Dyster said. "Improving people's perception of the city is a critical thing in getting people thinking about living here and working here and doing business here."
Chella said the city's involvement in the state's Operation Impact program has provided it with advice and financial assistance that is helping his department tackle crime of all types. In 2012, he said the department will either continue existing programs or implement new ones in an effort to target specific crime in specific areas. Included on the list are the safe shopping days in area business districts and continuation of both the youth and citizen police academies.
Chella said his department recently secured additional funding that will allow it to put more undercover officers and unmarked police vehicles on the streets this year.
"We're going to analyze the hot areas where we need to be and we are going to be in those areas but you're not necessarily going to be able to see us," Chella said.