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A closer look at the claim that Grand Rapids is the Safest City in Michigan

October 19, 2022

On October 10th, there was some media buzz claiming that Grand Rapids was the “safest” city in Michigan. 

A few radio stations in West Michigan did a brief news story, which was based on a Media Release coming from the group WalletHub. In an October 10 posting, WalletHub wrote: 

No one can avoid all danger, however, and we take on a certain level of risk based on where we choose to live. Some cities are simply better at protecting their residents from harm. To determine where Americans can feel most secure — in more than one sense — WalletHub compared more than 180 cities across 42 key indicators of safety. Our data set ranges from the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated and assaults per capita to the unemployment rate and road quality.

The City of Grand Rapids noted the WalletHub study on their Facebook page on October 11. The post provides a brief summary of the WalletHub finding, then the City’s Social media person writes, “You know what? We agree and based on their analysis, we’re 59th in the Country and #1 in Michigan!” The post also includes some commentary by the City’s Economic Development Committee, which writes, “Grand Rapids is a great place to live, enjoy and do business!”  

In the WalletHub survey of 180 cities, Grand Rapids ranks 59th safest city in the US and number 1 in Michigan. The survey looked at three major categories – Home & Community Safety, Natural Disaster Risk, and Financial Safety. WalletHub provides a link to the methodology they used for this survey, which includes numerous points for each of the three categories. The Methodology is near the bottom of the page that the rankings are on, just below the list of experts involved in making this determination.

Some things stood out when reading the points for each of the three categories listed in the Methodology, which I think are worth mentioning. First, in the Natural Disaster Risk category, it looks at things like flooding, hurricanes, and earthquakes, but completely omits a larger issue, which is the role that Climate Change is playing on issues like flooding and other extreme weather dynamics. It is pretty common knowledge that Climate Change is a major cause of extreme weather. For example, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions states: 

One of the most visible consequences of a warming world is an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. The National Climate Assessment finds that the number of heat waves, heavy downpours, and major hurricanes has increased in the United States, and the strength of these events has increased, too.

A measure of the economic impact of extreme weather is the increasing number of billion-dollar disasters, which is shown below. The map shows all types of weather disasters, some of which are known to be influenced by climate change (floods, tropical storms) and some for which a climate influence is uncertain (tornadoes).

In the Financial Safety category, while there is a measure of poverty, the survey tends to look at averages and ignores how poverty impacts some populations more in the cities WalletHub looked at. Grand Rapids has the highest Wealth Gap in Michigan, and the cost of rent compared to income demonstrates that there are thousands of families not earning enough in wages to afford the average cost of rent in Grand Rapids. There is also an omission about the racial dynamics of poverty and how BIPOC people have higher rates of poverty than white people do.

In the Home & Community Safety category, the only reference to policing is, “Law-Enforcement Employees per Capita.” The WalletHub survey completely ignores anything about how local police departments target certain populations or what the public thinks about the role of policing in their community. 

This is interesting, especially since the GRPD has been claiming for the past two years that they are understaffed and that crime rates are out of control. Even the pro-police group, Voice for the Badge, commented on the WalletHub story, saying that the article about Grand Rapids being the safest city in Michigan was dangerous and it puts the GRPD at risk. Our take is fundamentally different, since we would measure how many people, especially in Black and Brown communities, do not feel safe around the GRPD. In fact, there are numerous groups like Defund the GRPD, LineUp, the NAACP and the Urban Core Collective that have also been pointing out the disproportionately high number of BIPOC residents who have been harassed, intimidated and beaten by the GRPD, along with the more recent police murder of Patrick Lyoya. 

Like most of these sort of national studies, they do not include the lived experiences of people in the cities being studied, particularly the most marginalized in each community. The notion of safety is too narrow, especially since it doesn’t look at safety in a more comprehensible way, which would include race, gender, LGBTQ, those with disabilities, immigrants, the unhoused, religious minorities or things like incarceration rates. 

These studies also tend to look at averages and do not take into account structural issues like racism, economic disparities, and other long-standing historical factors that would more accurately determine the health and well being of cities, but more specifically the most marginalized communities within cities. 

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