Before moving to St. George in August 2014, I had been assured that southern Utah was sleepy and welcoming and that the outdoors called for adventures but that otherwise the town itself could be, shall we say, boring.
And yet my two-year stay in St. George was bookended by fairly extreme crimes. Only a month after moving, Zion’s Bank was robbed at gunpoint, hostages were kidnapped and driven away from the bank, and the suspect was shot and killed by police. Two years later, I left southern Utah amidst the harrowing assault, kidnapping, and death of David Heisler. My time, though relatively peaceful, had been marked with being more than one rape victim’s confidante, being victim myself to cyber sexual harassment, and hearing about too many drug busts to count. A shooting even took place on the peaceful thoroughfare of Main Street.
It all made me wonder: Is southern Utah as safe as I was told?
But to even understand this question, I needed to better understand what safety is. A quick Google search showed me that people like lists. No, they love lists: “Top 10 Safest US Cities,” “Ten Cities to Travel to as a Woman,” “World’s 25 Most Dangerous Cities.”
But how did these writers and analysts define “safety?” One blogger from escapehere.com used “rights and wages of women” and “crimes against women statistics” for a post on safe cities for traveling women. Online UK news source The Independent did a ranking of safest cities for 2015. Their criteria — which used data from The Economist’s Safe Cities Index — included safety, livability, and cost of living.
Though both “safety” and “livability” are vague in definition, the mention of cost of living is interesting, since the data — and perhaps experience — show us that social and economic status is inherently tied to safety. In fact, according to the Safe Cities Index, the development of gated communities (something we might see as contributing to our safety, with fences and security) can actually “foster suspicion and lead to greater social divisions and increased prevalence of crime. With residents shut away behind high walls, what were previously public spaces outside gated communities can become deserted and dangerous. Nor are residents always safe when inside their communities.”
According to Neighborhood Scout, St. George has a crime index of 37, placing the city as safer than 37 percent of other U.S. cities over the population of 25,000.
What is interesting here is the number of gated communities in St. George. Despite having lived many places before Utah, I’d actually never seen something like it. In fact, with the variation in class, age, and workforce, St. George is home to both the incredibly wealthy and significantly poor.
In its study, The Economist looked at four safety categories for a total of 50 cities worldwide; these four categories were digital security, health security, infrastructure safety, and personal safety. Though I personally cannot speak for everyone, when I think of safety, I dwell on this last category: personal safety. My mind does not immediately go to health safety (the possibility of contracting a disease and the availability of treatment), nor do I immediately think of digital security as I often think of it as ubiquitous. No, I generally think of violent and property crime.
According to Neighborhood Scout, St. George has a crime index of 37, placing the city as safer than 37 percent of other U.S. cities over the population of 25,000. The Neighborhood Scout pulls its data from “18,000 law enforcement agencies in America, [including] municipal police, county sheriff, transit police, campus police, public school police, park and port police, tribal police, and more.”
This crime index number, which pulled data from 2015 looking at St. George proper with a population of 78,505, seemed extreme to me. Surely St. George is safer than that. Despite the numbers, there are two interesting caveats to understanding safety. First — and most obviously — the crime statistics only account for reported crimes. As we know, many crimes, particularly domestic and sexual assault, are never reported. Second, as the Safe Cities Index words it, “being statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe.”
This opinion may be different for each individual, but it is still a defining characteristic of perceived safety, which could ultimately determine whether or not someone is comfortable in a city. While many residents and prospective residents might consult the numbers, for most, safety is a gut or instinctual feeling.
In St. George, despite campus and the streets containing insufficient to “passable” lighting at night, the city does have a homelike presence. Is it the tight-knit nature of St. George’s community that makes crimes stick out more? Do the crimes that bookended my southern Utah experience stick out in my mind because they were unexpected? Or is the crime index of 37 accurate and appropriate?
How do we define “feeling safe”? Is it by asking: Do I live alone or with others? Have I had a negative past experience? Are my family and friends nearby? Am I familiar with the streets? Are the streets well-lit? What time of the day is it? Who are my neighbors?
Is perceived safety a matter of familiarity, because home is meant to feel safe? How do you define your safety?