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Fact Check: candidate claims Citrus Heights among top ‘least safe’ cities; but is it?

Bret Daniels
2016 city council candidate and former Sacramento County Sheriff’s deputy Bret Daniels, speaking at a Sept. 19 election forum in Citrus Heights. // CH Sentinel

Updated Sept. 25, 12:59 a.m.–
The claim:
“There’s a dirty little secret about Citrus Heights and that is that we are in the top 100 of least safest cities in California… we have to do something to change that.” – Bret Daniels, candidate for Citrus Heights city council (Sept. 19, 2016).

The source: As evidence for his claim, Daniels referenced an online article in “The Patch,” which relied exclusively on a report by the consumer finance group ValuePenguin. “100 Safest — And ‘Least Safe’ — Towns In California, Latest Analysis Shows”

Reality: Misleading/inaccurate

A report by the consumer finance group “ValuePenguin” lists Citrus Heights at 345 out of 417 cities, putting the city among the 100 worst-ranked cities in California. According to ValuePenguin’s website, its rankings are based on 2014 data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program.

Asked about the credibility of ValuePenguin’s “safe city” report, Sacramento State business professor Terence Pitre, Ph.D., called the ranking system “fatally flawed” and metaphorically “dead in the water.” The FBI also cautions on its website that it “strongly discourages” data being used for ranking, due to ranking based solely on limited categories of crime resulting in “misleading perceptions.”

While crediting ValuePenguin for attempting to use city size as a scaling factor in comparing cities, the professor said he “seriously question(s) the methodology, accuracy, and reporting of such a ranking.” says the methodology used to rank cities from FBI data included standardizing the data to reflect violent and property crimes per 100,000, and also adding “slack” for larger cities.

ValuePenguin’s report also used an 80 percent weighting for violent crime and a 20 percent weighting for property crimes, while last year it chose to weight violent crime at 90 percent.

“Where the analysis becomes highly suspect is their arbitrary and unscientific weighting of property and violent crime,” the professor said in his written analysis to The Sentinel on Friday. “Such weighting without scientific theory or reference is highly subjective at best.”

“Even more disturbing in the analysis is their adding of ‘slack’ for bigger cities,” added Pitre, who said the report’s scaling of the number of crimes by 100,000 was already taken into account to adjust for differences in city size. “There is no need to ‘add slack.’ This effectively skews the data in favor of large cities appearing less dangerous than smaller ones.”

As a final critique the professor said “there are some things on the list that just don’t pass the good ole ocular ‘eye’ tests. I find it hard, if not impossible, to believe that San Luis Obispo is just slightly safer than Lodi or Hayward.”

ValuePenguin appears to also acknowledge difficulties in comparing large cities with small cities, as it additionally published a “2016 safest places to live” list, with three separate lists of the top 10 cities in each size category. As an explanation, ValuePenguin’s website says “Although we adjusted for population in our crime rankings, it is still difficult to compare a small town to a large city.”

While the FBI’s data is useful to track crime increases and drops for the eight categories of crime it lists in Part 1 of the UCR data, the lack of comprehensive crime data tracked by the FBI makes a “safe city” ranking using the limited data misleading. Part 2 UCR crimes were also not included in the ValuePenguin ranking, even though such offenses include DUI arrests and collisions, “simple assaults,” weapons violations, and at least a dozen other categories of crime.

As an example, ValuePenguin lists San Ramon as the “safest” place to live that is over 60,000 population, based on FBI data. However, based on the latest California Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) rankings, San Ramon is also ranked 58 out of 103 cities for total injury and fatal collisions — with “1” being the most dangerous and 103 being the most safe. By comparison, Citrus Heights ranks one point safer than the similarly sized city of San Ramon, with a ranking of 59 out of 103 cities.

Since OTS bases grant money allocation and other decisions off its traffic safety rankings, it accounts for many additional factors in determining rank for accuracy, whereas ValuePenguin does not.

>>Also on The Sentinel: “Meet the 8 candidates running for Citrus Heights city council”

So how safe is Citrus Heights in reality? The data currently available does not allow a definitive, comprehensive safety ranking — but in specific categories like traffic safety, it can be reasonably shown that the city is slightly more safe than similarly sized cities. However, in the past five years the city has also seen a rise in three of the eight categories of serious crime tracked by the FBI.

As previously reported on The Sentinel, Citrus Heights Police Chief Christopher Boyd presented a detailed five-year overview of crime in the city during a Feb. 25 council meeting this year, showing significant drops in burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson – but a significant rise in rape, aggravated assault, and homicides in 2015, compared to 2011. Motor vehicle theft dropped from 340 down to 271 and burglaries were almost slashed in half, but rape doubled from 15 up to 36 cases, and homicides rose from just one in 2011, to five in 2015.

[From March: Police Chief: overall crime down in Citrus Heights, robbery & homicides up]

Asked to respond specifically to Daniels’ assertion and the accuracy of ValuePenguin’s ranking, Chief Boyd did not comment on the accuracy of the ranking, but said in an email statement: “Since 2006, we have reduced all UCR crime by 28%, all property crime by 26%, all persons crime by 33% and all collisions by 44%. The Police Department is extraordinarily proud of this work and the men and women in uniform are highly rated by our community.”

While an exact safety ranking for the city may never be known, more work can still be done to lower crime and improve safety in Citrus Heights. More than any other candidate so far, Daniels is to be commended for offering a specific plan to improve safety in the city, but he should use caution in citing highly questionable reports to make his point.

What do you think should be done to lower crime and improve safety in Citrus Heights? Share your thoughts in a letter-to-the-editor or opinion piece using our new submission form.

*Note: In the interest of fairness and community discussion, The Sentinel has given Candidate Bret Daniels the opportunity to submit an opinion piece or letter responding to our fact check article. As of Sept. 27, an article submission from Daniels has not been received.

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