CLEVELAND, Ohio — A recent report on the safety of cities in Ohio named eleven Greater Cleveland communities among the 20 in which residents are least likely to be crime victims.
The communities are:
- Chester Township: Geauga County (2nd)
- Bay Village: Cuyahoga County (3rd)
- Hudson: Summit County (6th)
- Brecksville: Cuyahoga County (7th)
- Olmsted Township: Cuyahoga County (8th)
- Seven Hills: Cuyahoga County (9th)
- North Ridgeville: Lorain County(11th)
- Sagamore Hills: Summit County (13th)
- Montville Township: Medina County (14th)
- Aurora: Portage County (16th)
- Brunswick: Medina County (20th)
Safewise, a home security company, compiled the report using FBI data. While the numbers don’t paint a complete picture — villages of less than 2,000 residents, for example, were not included — there is no question that these 11 communities are largely free of crime.
SafeWise is far from the only group that ranks the safety of cities and towns. While each has a different formula, rankings tend to be similar because they all rely on publicly available crime statistics.
“We have for several years now been ranked very highly” on several lists, North Ridgeville Mayor David Gillock said Friday. “We just got another ranking today from a group called Lend Edu.”
What makes a community safe?
All 11 communities have things in common. They are largely rural or suburban, and all have dedicated police forces and quality schools. All 11 boast average household incomes well above the national average. But when asked why those communities are safer than average, officials had a wide variety of answers.
“It sounds like an easy question,” Olmsted Township Police Chief Matthew Vanyo said. “But I put some thought into it, and it’s more complex than you think.”
Vanyo credited a number of factors for Olmsted Township’s ranking, including good schools, a largely rural population and a solid relationship between the police and township residents.
Substance abuse rates are often related to crime rates, as is neighborhood dysfunction and rates of firearm ownership, said Dan Flannery, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.
“It has to do with a whole bunch of things,” said Flannery, whose area of expertise is violent crime.
Edward Bicker, who was recently appointed to the Seven Hills City Council, moved to that city in 1999 because he was impressed with the low crime rates.
“I knew it was going to be a very quiet neighborhood where I could transition into retirement,” he said.
What the numbers don’t say
Flannery cautioned against taking reports like SafeWise’s as gospel.
While statistics don’t lie, they can also paint an incomplete picture. SafeWise’s numbers, for example, exclude communities that don’t volunteer their crime data to the FBI. The federal agency asks police departments to submit a uniform crime report every month, and while the majority comply, there are a few outliers who don’t.
The home security company also omitted towns with less than 2,000 residents. That means the affluent villages like Bratenahl and Hunting Valley aren’t included in their figures. Few would argue that Bratenahl and Hunting Valley are not safe places to live.
The company put the cutoff point at 2,000 to exclude tiny communities with only a few hundred people where crime is all but non-existent, SafeWise Community Outreach Specialist Sage Singleton said.
If those small communities were included “it wouldn’t be a fair evaluation,” Singleton said.
Flannery also cautioned that unreported crimes aren’t reflected in SafeWise’s data. That could put communities where residents feel more comfortable calling the police at a disadvantage.
“It’s nice to see what the official data looks like, but it’s always important to keep in mind the difference between the numbers are reality,” he said.
Additionally, certain neighborhoods within a city can have different levels of crime, Flannery added.
“If you live on the 117th Street corridor in Lakewood (which is right on the border of Cleveland, a city with one of the highest crime rates in Ohio) you probably have a different opinion than someone who lives closer to Rocky River,” he said.
A visible police force makes a city safer, said many people who live in the 11 Greater Clevealnd communities that SafeWise ranked in the top 20.
“We have a wonderful police force,” said Brunswick Mayor Ron Falconi. “They’re out patrolling the streets and engaged in the community.”
Many smaller cities have citizen police academies that build relationships between residents and the men and women charged with keeping them safe.
“They act as kind of a liaison between the citizens and the force,” Falconi said.
Keeping violent crime to a minimum is a matter of communication, cooperation and dedicating resources to small problems before they become big ones, Bay Village Police Chief Mark Spaetzel.
Unlike it’s larger peers like Cleveland and Akron, Bay Village police rarely have to investigate homicides or gun violence. This frees its officers to deal with small problems — such as disputes between neighbors — before they get out of hand, Spaetzel said.
Police can also dedicate resources to helping people with mental-health problems find the help they need, the chief added.
Officers in these nine cities also go out of their way to get to know members of the community through charities like Shop with a Cop and Stuff the Cruiser.
Chief Vanyo hosts “Coffee with the Chief” on the last Friday of every month, giving township residents the chance to ask questions and express concerns.
Detective Gabe Smolik was the guest speaker at the most recent Coffee with the Chief, which was attended by around 15 people. Attendees said there are usually more. He explained how investigators lift fingerprints, demonstrating the brush he uses to reveal the location of prints.
Crime shows on television — which have proven wildly popular — create the impression that investigators have access to advanced technology and can survey a crime scene in a matter of minutes.
“It’s not really like that,” Smolik said, explaining that gathering evidence is a sometimes arduous process.
As Smolik concluded his presentation, Chief Vanyo asked attendees too tell their friends that if their house is burglarized, they should try to avoid touching anything so they don’t dilute the crime scene.
Lee Kurz — an Olmsted Township resident since 1994 — said he’s been going to the monthly gathering since the previous police chief, John Minek, started hosting them four years ago.
Kurz said he attends the meetings to keep apprised of what’s happening in the township, but the meetings also make him feel more trusting of the township’s officers.
“At least we know them,” he said. “That’s a big thing, you don’t feel they’re after you. When they come to your house, you know they’re your friend, you know they’re not coming to grab you.”
Last year, Berea and Olmsted Township launched Safe Passages, an addiction recovery program, to battle the heroin epidemic. Under Safe Passages, the police waive arrests of heroin users if they agree to enroll in a recovery program.
The idea is to get them the help they need and prevent future crimes like shoplifting and robbery that addicts often commit when they need drug money.
Vanyo said the program, which has earned the township positive press, is indicative of the way they the police try to get people help before they resort to crime.
Residents of the 11 communities are mostly older. North Ridgeville, for example, has a median age of 40.7 years old, according to the latest census figures. That’s several years above the national average of 37 years old. Seven Hills has an average age of more 50 years old, and Bicker said much of the population is retired.
The 11 communities largely have quality school systems, which are generally said to contribute to lower crime rates. The state regularly awards their school districts passing grades or higher.
“Whenever you have an educated population there tends to be less crime,” North Ridgeville City Councilman Kevin Corcoran said.
Research backs up that assertion. A 2013 study from the University of Western Ontario and UCLA found that the more educated a person is, the lower the likelihood they would be incarcerated.
But there’s another factor that ties all 11 communities together: affluence.
That isn’t surprising, considering that research has repeatedly suggested a link between low income and crime. A 2014 U.S. Department of Justice report found that people living in poverty were far more likely to be violent crime victims.
Bay Village, which SafeWise ranked as the safest city in Greater Cleveland, also happens to be one of the region’s wealthiest, with a median household income of more than $89,000 a year, according to the latest census figures. That’s around $28,000 higher than the national average.
Brecksville’s median household income is even higher, eclipsing $100,000 a year with just three percent of the city living in poverty. The remaining communities in SafeWise’s top 20 have median house hold incomes between $71,000 and $62,000 per year.
By contrast Cleveland — which experienced 136 homicides in 2016 — has a median household income of $26,000 and a poverty rate of 36.2 percent, making it one of Ohio’s poorest cities.
The following communities are the 20 safest in Ohio, according to SafeWise:
- Dover: Tuscarawas County
- Chester Township: Geauga County
- Bay Village: Cuyahoga County
- Bellevue: Erie, Huron and Sandusky counties
- Poland Township: Mahoning County
- Hudson: Summit County
- Brecksville: Cuyahoga County
- Olmsted Township: Cuyahoga County
- Seven Hills: Cuyahoga County
- Powell: Delaware County
- North Ridgeville: Lorain County
- Hamilton Township: Warren County
- Sagamore Hills: Summit County
- Montville Township: Medina County
- Sylvania Township: Lucas County
- Aurora: Portage County
- Clearcreek Township: Warren County
- Springboro: Warren and Montgomery counties
- Fostoria: Hancock, Seneca and Wood counties
- Brunswick: Medina County