Is St Louis dangerous? It’s a little more dangerous than places most people consider safe. But the dangers of St. Louis are at least slightly overblown, and they are certainly manageable.
St Louis crime rates are often reported in ways to make them sound larger than the actual risk. But beyond that, the rule in St Louis is that if you don’t go looking for trouble, trouble probably won’t find you.
Are you talking cities, or metro areas?
The misleading thing about reporting crime rates is that usually the rates are reported for just the city limits, not including the suburbs. This really deflates the numbers. For that matter, the way the numbers are reported makes them sound bigger than they are.
Take 2017, for example. This was the year St. Louis first led the nation in murders, and it’s also the most recent year I can find data for both the city and the entire metro area. In 2017 there were 205 murders in the entire metro area. But 159 of them happened in the city. So are your chances of being murdered in St. Louis 0.05 percent? Or is it 0.0068 percent?
That doesn’t sound so dangerous, does it? For context, your chances of dying in a car crash are 0.03 percent. So even if you stick to the city limits, the Murder Capital of the Known Universe (as seen on TV!), is slightly more dangerous than your car.
You never see crime rates reported that way because those numbers are so small. No one will read the story. Instead, they lump all violent crime together and report it as how many in 100,000, because then you get four-digit numbers. This normalizes the data, so you can compare cities of various sizes fairly, but it also makes them sound more dangerous.
Frightened people buy more stuff, so that’s why statistics are most frequently reported as thousands per 100,000 rather than straight percentages.
Why is St Louis so dangerous?
Context is everything. I just told you that your chances of being murdered in St. Louis are, at worst, 0.05 percent.
In 2019, St. Louis was ranked as the most dangerous city in the nation, with a violent crime rate of 2,082 per 100,000 people.
But that’s not murders. That’s all violent crimes. That’s murder, rape, robbery, assault… Pretty much anything that involves physical harm or any threat of physical harm.
But for perspective, let’s look at the third largest city in Missouri. Springfield isn’t exactly a large city. But measuring the same way, Springfield, a small city in the middle of rural southwestern Missouri, is the kind of place people go to feel safe. But that’s mostly about feelings. Springfield, Missouri is the 11th most dangerous city in the nation. It has a violent crime rate of 1,339 per 100,000 residents.
Looking at this another way, if you live in St. Louis, there’s a 2.082 percent chance of violent crime happening to you. Or you could live in Springfield, where there’s a 1.339 percent chance of violent crime happening to you. That means St. Louis is 0.74% more dangerous than Springfield, Missouri.
So, in the five most dangerous cities in America, there’s about a 2 percent chance of an incident affecting you. In the 25th most dangerous city in America, Springfield, Illinois (not Missouri), there’s about a 1 percent chance of an incident affecting you.
How many murders should we expect St. Louis to have?
In 2017, there were 17,294 murders in the United States. 208 of them, or 1.2 percent, happened in or around St. Louis. The total population of the United States was 325 million, so the St. Louis area is 0.9 percent of the population. All things being equal, we’d expect St. Louis to have 0.9 percent of the murders. That means St. Louis is 0.3 percent worse than we expect.
Stranger vs non-stranger crime
Quick: Are most crimes committed by strangers, or by people who know the victim? Television certainly suggests it’s usually strangers. But that’s good television, not good reporting. In fact, about 60% of crime victims know their attacker.
Your chances of being murdered by a stranger in St. Louis are lower than your chances of dying in a car crash. If you’re not afraid of dying in a car crash, you shouldn’t be afraid of being murdered by a stranger in the most dangerous city in America. Your chances of being murdered by someone you know are slightly higher. If you’re afraid of being murdered by someone you know, you might want to keep better company.
Dangerous areas in St Louis
The dangerous areas in St. Louis are also overhyped. At the time I wrote this, I did a Google search to see what would come up. The first result was a list of what claimed to be the 13 most dangerous areas of St. Louis, but the list was in alphabetical order and every last one was in the first half of the alphabet. Not only that, some of the place on the list aren’t dangerous, and the actual dangerous areas weren’t on the list at all.
It seems a lot of the people talking about crime in St. Louis don’t actually live here.
Somewhere between half and 2/3 of crime in the St. Louis area, depending on whether you’re talking violent or nonviolent crime, takes place in a region called North St. Louis, the inner city north of downtown but still within the city limits. This area has been declining since the mid 1960s, when the Cardinals moved from Busch Stadium I (the former Sportsman’s Park) to the downtown Busch Stadium II.
For most people, literally the only reason to go into this area is Crown Candy Kitchen, a soda fountain and confectionery that’s been there since 1913 and is still run by the same family. If you stay out of that area except to get some turn-of-the-previous-century ice cream, St Louis isn’t really any more dangerous than any other metro area.
That’s why crime in St. Louis is a tough nut to crack. It’s mostly poor people who live in North St Louis now. The factories all closed, so very few people work there. People complain about the crime, but since it doesn’t really affect them personally, when it comes time to do something about it that will cost money, everyone shrugs.
Staying safe in St Louis
The general rule for staying safe in St Louis is dead simple. Go where other people go. Downtown is safe when there’s a sporting event or a concert going on. But if there’s no event going on downtown, it’s less safe after dark. Then again, there’s not much other reason to go downtown after dark.
But if you want to go get dinner on The Hill, go to The Hill. It’s a delightful neighborhood that hasn’t changed much over the last century, still populated by the descendants of the Italian immigrants who settled there. It’s packed with great non-chain shops and restaurants. If you want to see what that frozen custard thing is all about, go to Ted Drewes. There’s always a line, even in December. If there’s a line, it’s safe. The same even goes for Crown Candy Kitchen. The area around it is past its prime, but there’s almost always a crowd waiting to get in. If there’s a line, you’re safe. And if there’s not a line, you’re inside, and also safe. If you like beer, or are just curious, take the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour.
The suburbs are also much the same way. Yes, St. Louis has Ferguson, home of the notorious race riots. But I’ve even taken clients out to eat in Ferguson. There’s a popular pub there. There are better pubs in less notorious areas but the point is, you can even venture into Ferguson without anything bad happening. If it has a good Yelp review, go.
That’s why St Louis consistently rates well as a travel destination in spite of making headlines as a murder capital. As a dangerous city, it’s overrated (as are pretty much all of them anymore). As a destination, it’s highly underrated, partly because it’s managed to retain a fair bit of local character even though it’s lost some institutions like Lake Forest Pastry Shop, Bavarian Inn, Rossino’s, and the entirety of Gaslight Square over the years. On top of that, it has compelling architecture, a world-class zoo, and several good museums.
Is crime getting better or worse?
According to the Bureau of Justice, violent crime has increased every year since 2015. However, the overall trend for violent and non-violent crime since 1991 has been a decrease, and a rather significant one at that. In 1991, there were 14.78 million crimes reported in the United States. In 2018, the most recent year I have data, there were 8.4 million, in spite of the population increasing by almost 70 million people in that time period. When we adjust for the population, there was 44% as much crime in 2018 as there was in 1991.
Crime peaked in about 1980. It decreased through the first half of the 1980s before starting to trend upward in 1985, then it reversed course in 1992, never again reaching 1980 levels. Crime rates in 2018 were comparable to what they were in 1965.
Many factors go into it, but one reason for that is the removal of lead from paint and gasoline.
But those facts don’t sell guns and pepper spray and tasers, so if this is the first time you’ve heard this, that’s why.