Safe: What Does it Mean?

Well, we are no longer the safest city in the US—we lost that title ?two years ago. But much like that absurd slogan, “America’s 10th Largest City,” which some lunatic believed would set us up for great international renown, this title too is not worth the banner that it’s printed on. When it comes right down to it: who cares what a few magazine writers and the guy who makes the banner think? High time to set aside childish things and look to what is important in our city.

Our economy is reeling. And this time it is not only a tech meltdown that we must weather, but a total and global meltdown, the parameters of which are impossible to chart. So what if El Paso—that’s right, El Paso, Texas—is ahead of us on some mythical, hyper-subjective list of safeness. The thing that is important is: How does the citizen living in Evergreen, Berryessa or Downtown San Jose feel about their level of security? Do they feel safe in their parks? Do their kids feel OK about their schools and parks? These are the things that make a city safe, decent and livable.

The real measure of a city is surely not an arbitrary ranking. The true measure of a city is how the people who live there feel about their home.

There are neighborhoods where gang activity is at worrying level. There are places where a young Hispanic boy is at risk because of clothing-color choices. That’s not the San Jose that we are all trying to build; that is not our city of hope and opportunity.

We have to build a city, day by day, again and again. We have to work at it with passion and gusto constantly, always, constantly.

Small crimes and obscene events create an environment that leads to a larger breakdown in our society. They must be treated as the precursors to more serious crime. As in all things, we must hang together or hang separately. These are very tough times and we must move in a direct and forceful way to make sure that our city remains as we must have it: safe, sane, and
civilized. It takes an entire city to accomplish this. We’ll leave the ranking to the deluded and the delusional.


  1. Rankings matter because measurements matter.  Without a clear goal the city administration would do nothing.  Without a public outcry the city council will do nothing.  That’s just the way it works.  It’s really dumb for us not to aspire to be the safest big city.  It’s really the only positive thing San Jose as a city can achieve a number one ranking.  If there’s something else I’d like to hear it.

  2. Some measures of safety and security that I consider when I think about how my life in San Jose is going are:

    – Safety of every person in the community from physical assault, robbery, or harassment regardless of race or immigration status

    – Security in housing so that rent is brought into balance with wages and eviction is not a constant threat (especially under the current recession with the layoffs coming fast and furious)

    – Safe and secure work where jobs are not perpetually in danger of being cut or degraded in terms of hours or pay

    – Safety from unaccountable government agencies that have power over us (police, planning/land-use) via transparency and public oversight

    While these criteria are hard to measure, these are values that are held by most of the people I know in San Jose and we as a community fall far short of living up to them. The goals of public safety need to be broadened beyond rates of arrests/crimes into how safe people actually feel in their daily lives.


  3. I think the ranking does mean something. If we were ranked in the bottom 10 for the least safe big cities we would take notice. The fact we have slipped to 4th from 1st may not be a drastic difference unless you live, work, or go to school in an area where the crime rate has gone up. For those of us lucky enough to be in an area of the city where the crime rate is the same it is easy to be complacent and dismiss the lower ranking as some meaningless study. My personal and anecdotal reasons the crime rate has risen is that our police department has the same staffing for a city of 1 million people that it did when the city had 750,000 people. The police department staffing now is the same as it was in the mid 1990’s. Per capita our department has one of the lowest staffing rates of any big city in the United States. We continually make our fine policewomen and policemen the scapegoats for other bigger problems in society and punish the officers by making their already tough job harder and harder, rather than have the courage to deal with the real underlying problems (IE drunk in public arrests).

  4. 1. Rankings are not measurements because our going down in the rankings could just indicate that some other city made a big improvement. Or, alternatively, that things are getting worse everywhere, but more slowly some places than others.

    Measurements are hard numbers like number of murders per 10,000 population and so on. These we can use to compare our performance this year to previous years, and of course to other comparable cities.

    A ranking doesn’t give enough information to reason about the results.

  5. I live close to a San Jose Unified high school, and have for the past ten years. No Rocket Science degree required to observe what’s happened to the school population in that time: gang membership up, crime, traffic problems, vandalization, litter, and subwoofer thuggery way up. I, for one, appreciate these data-based rankings, and our concommitant drop in status, because it helps convince schools, police, and politicians that bad things are happening. Previously, everybody hid behind “Safest Large City” as a figleaf. Tom’s right that this is an all-day, every day effort, but wrong to dismiss these quantifiable results.  They move the bueracracy to action more than citizen complaints. Sad, but true. And what’s with the snarky El Paso comments? Reminds me of how people used to make fun of San Jose (and many still do.) Let’s not become civic snobs.

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