Criminal comparisons: Finding Decatur’s double

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt August 10, 2013

As a general rule, ranking one city’s crime rate with another’s poses certain problems.

It’s like comparing people, really. No two people are totally alike. The same is true with cities. 

In my previous article, I talked about crime trends in the city where I currently reside, Decatur, Ga. I used data provided by the city and the FBI to put the recent so-called “crime wave” in perspective.

Comparing a town with itself is one thing. I felt that in order to truly get a sense of how we’re doing, I needed a measuring stick.

I asked Sgt. Jennifer Ross, spokeswoman for the Decatur Police, what city might make for a good comparison.

“Chamblee and Doraville are closer to us in size but half of our population,” Ross said. “Dunwoody is three times our size and a little over double the population. Roswell, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek are all way larger and more populated. Lithonia, Pine Lake and Stone Mountain are all way smaller and less populated. There really is nothing out there quite like Decatur.”

She’s got a point. Finding a city that comes close to matching Decatur’s demographic profile was challenging. I couldn’t find one in Georgia. I had to look beyond our borders, but not too far. I wanted a Southern city because I think cultural values have a lot to do with how we perceive and react to crime.

I found cities that came close but were still too short, either because of education, racial makeup or economics. The place I found that came the closest was a town I’d never heard of: Carrboro, N.C.

Here’s a comparison of the demographics of each (please note, I’m doing this crap in Microsoft Paint so you may have to click on this image to get a better look at the numbers):


We’re looking at a town that has a similar racial makeup and education level. The population density is also comparable, though Carrboro is a little less compact than Decatur.

In addition to the things I’ve listed here, I think it’s also important to consider that both communities are near an international airport, though there aren’t many that approach the size of Atlanta’s. In addition to being denser, Decatur also has public rail transit, something Carrboro lacks.

As Ross pointed out, there’s nothing out there quite like Decatur. But Carrboro, N.C. comes close enough that I think its crime rate is worth studying. It may give us a better insight into our own.

I’m more focused on violent crime because, well, it involves people getting hurt. Property can be replaced, but people can’t.

So how do these two communities compare in terms of violent crime?

ViolentCrimeDecaturCarrboroAs you can see, Decatur hasn’t seen as many reports of violent crime as our comparison city. Some years we’re running even, but Decatur’s rate hasn’t surpassed Carrboro’s violent crime rate since the late 90s. Good news there.

Now property crime is a bit of a different story.

Decatur, Carrboro property crimeIn 2012, Decatur’s rate of property crime surpassed Carrboro’s for the first time since 2009. We won’t know if that trend is getting worse until well after 2013 concludes. It isn’t something to take lightly, given our recent troubles with burglaries in the city.

Editor’s note: As I noted in the prior article, Decatur’s Uniform Crime Reports for the years of 1991 and 1994-96 appear to be incomplete. I suspect if we had all the data, the trends of the two cities would be similar.

This exercise is not unlike staring at ourselves in a fun house mirror. The data provide an interesting counterpoint, but I think the differences are more interesting than the similarities.

The prosperity of the two cities is vastly different. We have a lower poverty rate, a higher home ownership rate and a higher household median income. My gut sense of it, without any deeper analysis of the trends, is that crime rates and economic opportunities – I mean real opportunities, not minimum wage gigs – are inextricably linked.

I think our poverty and home ownership rates should be as closely monitored as our crime rates. I’d argue the best way to fight crime, in addition to making sure our police force is appropriately staffed, is making sure the city’s leadership is focused on expanding economic opportunity for the people living here.

How we do that is a topic for a future post.

But here’s a question I think we should all be asking ourselves as a community: Assuming I’m correct about the effects of poverty and home ownership on local crime rates, are mixed-use apartment projects the best thing for Decatur’s future?

I’m not saying an apartment project definitely will increase the local crime rate. I’m just asking a question based on an assumption that may or may not be backed up by the data. (The point of these posts, in fact, was to use data to challenge prevailing assumptions about crime.) If done correctly, an apartment project could be a boost to the local economy. Most of the proposed apartment projects in metro Atlanta are geared toward affluent young professionals.

But apartments tend to have a shorter shelf life than single family homes or town homes. They increase population density and the people who live in apartments tend to be more transient than home owners.

Are people who will only be here for a short time going to feel like they have as much of a stake in the city’s future? Will apartments grow the city’s tax base over time?

It’s something to think about.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends about why Carrboro might not be a good comparison city, for a host of reasons: proximity to a major city (as Decatur is to Atlanta), demographic makeup, etc. I’m open to suggestions here and willing to run the numbers for other cities as well. I don’t want to pretend that I think this is the perfect comparison. In fact, having a couple of more cities to compare wouldn’t hurt. I just couldn’t find anything that I felt fit the bill as well as Carrboro did.

One reason I picked Carrboro was the size of its police department. I felt that with a comparable size you’d have a comparable command structure that could support the larger force. I think larger cities, while providing a a better demographic match up, might not stack up as well because they’re being supported by a larger police force.

As I said, I’m willing to take suggestions. I’d prefer to stick with cities in the South for reasons I cited earlier. Thank you!

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • I think the main problem with comparing these two places is that Decatur, while technically its own “city,” is really just another neighborhood of Atlanta (which has a metro population of over 5 million)… similar to Kirkwood or downtown East Point. Carrboro, however, is a far out suburb of Raleigh (which boasts only 2 million in its metro area across Chapel Hill and Durham).

    This isn’t really about “city” crime — it’s about neighborhood crime.

    I actually think a closer city in comparison would be Durham, though it’s larger than the city of Decatur (100k). It’s a progressive haven of the south (votes democrat), 45% white, median income over $40k, a “bicycle friendly community” like Decatur, strong arts culture, rich civil rights history (like Atlanta), and Duke and the NCCU (an HBCU) are located there. Still not a perfect match, but I think it’s probably a closer match than Carrboro despite population.

    If there’s crime statistics within an affluent neighborhood there, it might be better to look there.

    • Good points, Catie. I am wondering if I can break the UCR stats down to the neighborhood level. That’s something I’d have to ask Durham PD, I suspect. I appreciate your input.

  • Marcus M

    Great article as always Dan.

    I’ve been trying to think of a similar place all day to do a comparison and I’m at a loss. I really think of Decatur as this cool neighborhood that’s in ‘Atlanta’ for the most part.

    Perhaps the key to a great comparison is the makeup of the nearest population center. I assume that most of the crime committed in Decatur isn’t by Decatur residents. I’m pulling that idea out of the clear blue sky but it seems reasonable.

    Assuming I’m right, you might have to look outside the south. Michigan is a good place. As far as I’m concerned its the southern cousin that no one talks about.

    • Great insight, as always. I’m open to running the numbers for other places. It just might be more difficult to do apples to apples when you consider that bigger cities more than likely have higher crime rates based on population density alone. That would be difficult to hold up next to the Decatur statistics. I don’t know how I could use it to draw a fair comparison unless I could get the UCR data broken down specifically for a section of town with a similar demographic profile. That’s assuming they have it broken down in that level of detail, or in the manner that I’d need it organized to have the basis for a fair comparison.

      I’d like to think of this article as the starting point for an ongoing discussion, not the final word on the topic. I value everyone’s input, for sure. Thanks for giving us yours.

  • JB

    I may be one of a handful of people that has lived in both places. It’s important to note that Carrboro is essentially an extension of Chapel Hill. It’s in no way a suburb of Raleigh, though I’m sure there are residents who commute that way. Carrboro shares a school district with Chapel Hill and connects directly to Chapel Hill via Franklin Street. Carrboro definitely has a lower density feel than Decatur, but as shown in the lower homeownership rate, there are lots of suburban-style garden apartment communities dominated by UNC grad students. However I bet if you look at political leanings you would see that Carrboro and Decatur are very similar in that regard. Carrboro is nicknamed “Paris of the Piedmont”, it’s liberal, has a big arts community, some great brew pubs, an awesome cooperative grocery store called Weaver Street Market, and some very cool old houses. It’s also the headquarters of Fleet Feet, so the owners of our local franchise may have some thoughts on the comparison. Overall I think it’s a decent comparison, but frankly you might have to look to the north, where you have more self-contained towns butting up against each other with their own school districts and police departments. Down here the dominance of county government makes Decatur’s situation pretty unique.

    • Wow. Thank you for the reply and your perspective. I wondered if anyone out there had lived in both places.

  • Craig

    Very interesting. Seems like another way to do this is to get the data on lots (all?) of cities for education, home ownership etc and then fit a simple regression to the crime data. Then we could see if Decatur, given its characteristics (i.e., % home owners, education), has more or less crime than predicted.

    • Craig, ranking multiple cities like that can be problematic for a host of reasons, not the least of which being the time involved to put that kind of in-depth analysis together in a way that would be fair and account for numerous variables. I had some initial reservations about doing a comparison with just one city, and the results weren’t perfect even though I never said they would be. It’s a tricky topic. Another thought that occurred to me was comparing crime stats of metro areas, but then you take away the ability to look at the numbers up close for one particular community. If I revisit this I will probably want to look at a handful of cities, not just Carrboro. Thanks for the suggestions, though. Much appreciated.

  • George#2

    I lived in the Chapel Hill – Carrboro area for my first 22 years, Altanta for the next 8, and Decatur for the last 15. The two cities do have a remarkably similar feel IMO. Regarding crime, the big difference that stands out in my mind is that the Chapel Hill – Carrboro area is more self contained, and everyone knows each other. There was only one high school there for years (well, 2 back in segregated times). Durham was relatively far away. So most crime happened from within the community which seemed to help resolution. There are some notable exceptions, like 2 teens from Durham murdering the UNC student body president which was tragic beyond words. For Decatur, on the other hand, it seems that people can slip in from adjoining areas, commit crimes, and slip out into anonymity. Maybe there’s a stat on the percentage of crimes committed from community members vs. outsiders?

    Interesting read on crime trend in recent Economist:

    • George, thanks for the article, I’m reading it now. So glad people who have lived in both jumped in to provide their perspective. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel somewhat wary of discussing a city I had not visited. One of the issues I’d like to explore is where these offenders come from. It might also be revealed by analyzing Decatur’s “hot” areas for specific crimes. I am continuing to work on it, so stay tuned. And thanks for reaching out.

  • Chris

    Vienna, VA is listed in the latest MONEY magazine as “one of the best places to live.” Its 16 miles f rom Washington DC. Population around the same as Decaturs. That might be another place to compare.

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