In March 2008, Kwame Kilpatrick was charged with eight felonies, including perjury and obstruction of justice. In August, he violated his bail agreement and was thrown in jail. His actions were deplorable for anybody, but Kilpatrick was no Average Joe--he was the mayor of Detroit.
Unfortunately for the Motor City, Kilpatrick, 38, is just one ripple in the area's sea of crime. Detroit is the worst offender on our list of America's most dangerous cities, thanks to a staggering rate of 1,220 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.
"Detroit has, historically, been one of the more violent cities in the U.S.," says Megan Wolfram, an analyst at iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a Maryland-based risk-assessment firm. "They have a number of local crime syndicates there--a number of small gangs who tend to compete over territory."
Detroit was followed closely on the list by the greater Memphis, Tenn., and Miami, Fla., metropolitan areas. Those three were the only large cities in America with more than 950 violent crimes committed per 100,000 people.
Behind the Numbers
To determine our list, we used violent crime statistics from the FBI's latest uniform crime report, issued in 2008. The violent crime category is composed of four offenses: murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. We evaluated U.S. metropolitan statistical areas--geographic entities defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for use by federal agencies in collecting, tabulating and publishing federal statistics--with more than 500,000 residents.
Though nationwide crime was down 3.5% year over year in the first six months of 2008, the cities atop our list illustrate a disturbing trend: All 10 of the most dangerous cities were among those identified by the Department of Justice as transit points for Mexican drug cartels.
Run by crime lords like Joaquin Guzman Lorea, these gangs--and their violent turf wars--are spreading into the American Southwest and beyond. Places like Stockton, Calif., nearly 500 miles from Tijuana, have seen an uptick in related violent crime.
"Stockton is a major transit point along the I-5 corridor on the way to Seattle and Vancouver," says Wolfram. "A lot of it is similar to crime happening in the Southwest. For the most part, it's drug gang on drug gang."
The situation in Mexico has escalated in recent years, but Detroit has been dealing with the same problems for decades. An industrial boomtown during the first half of the 20th century, the population of Detroit proper swelled from 285,000 in 1900 to 990,000 in 1920, reaching a peak of 1.8 million in 1950.
Only half that number still lives within city limits. Starting in the 1960s, Detroit began a precipitous decline. Most scholars blame rapid suburbanization, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, and federal programs they say exacerbated the situation by creating a culture of joblessness and dependency. Residents fled to the suburbs and to other regions of the country entirely, leaving behind a landscape littered with abandoned buildings.
"Factories that once provided tens of thousands of jobs now stand as hollow shells, windows broken, mute testimony to a lost industrial past," wrote Thomas J. Sugrue in his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis. "Whole sections of the city are eerily apocalyptic."
Detroit isn't the only city on the list that's suffering from abandonment issues.
In Las Vegas, Nev., for example, the housing boom created loads of excess inventory. When the market tanked, homeowners suddenly found themselves with properties worth far less than the mortgages they'd taken out. In the worst cases, banks foreclosed, leaving people without homes--and with more debt than they'd had to begin with. As a result, Sin City is even emptier than Detroit.
"Detroit has trouble showing improvement in its crime rate because dedicated, desperately needed and appropriate resources are not invested in public safety. Painfully, it is not a priority," says Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney Kym L. Worthy. "I wish that those with the resources would view domestic terrorism like they do terrorism across the water. It used to be that we were keeping our head above water and treading quickly. Now we are drowning, and no one seems to really care. All they tell me to do is cut some more."
Few Signs of Improvement
Making matters more difficult, as municipal budgets shrink during this recession, crime-fighting funds are often among the first casualties.
"There's less public spending during downturns," says Wolfram. "Police departments and incarcerations systems are tough to fund."
The news has been bad for decades, but there may yet be hope for Detroit. The city's new mayor, Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr., assumed office on Sept. 19, 2009--and hasn't committed a single felony.
Top 5 Most Dangerous Cities:
No. 1 Detroit, Mich.
(Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, Mich., metropolitan statistical area)
Violent Crimes per 100,000: 1,220
No. 2 Memphis, Tenn.
(Memphis, Tenn.-Miss.-Ark. metropolitan statistical area)
Violent Crimes per 100,000: 1,218
No. 3. Miami, Fla.
(Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall, Fla. metropolitan statistical area)
Violent Crimes per 100,000: 988
No. 4 Las Vegas, Nev.
(Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev., metropolitan statistical area)
Violent Crimes per 100,000: 887
No. 5 Stockton, Calif.
(Stockton, Calif., metropolitan statistical area)
Violent Crimes per 100,000: 885