Exploring the Link between Crime and Socio-Economic Status in Ottawa and Saskatoon: A Small-Area Geographical Analysis

1. Introduction

In Canada, very little research has been devoted to exploring the geographic relationship between the incidence of crime and socio-economic status at the intra-urban level. While there is undoubtedly strong interest by criminologists, urban geographers and others in investigating these links, research has been hindered by the fact that crime data are difficult to obtain for small geographic areas such as the neighbourhood or city block. Several police services across Canada are developing mechanisms to make small area data available. By comparison, in recent years, researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom have benefited from greater access to crime data and, as a result, are increasingly integrating this information with census and other population based data at smaller levels of geography.

This publication has two principal objectives. The first is to contribute to the Canadian literature in urban social geography and criminology by using Ottawa and Saskatoon as case studies to explore the geographic relationship between crime and socio-economic status in the two cities. The second objective is to develop a research model for small area crime analysis in Canada that will contribute to a better comprehension of the social and economic circumstances associated with crime at the intra-urban level and assist in the formulation of policies for crime prevention and social upgrading.

The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics (CCJS) releases crime data on an annual basis reported by individual police departments across Canada aggregated according to the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR). The data are available at a number of geographic levels including the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) and the Census Sub-Division (CSD). Several municipal police services in Canada make monthly and annual crime statistics available for their patrol areas. While these data are useful in examining general trends, the geographic areas represented are quite large and given the extensive socio-spatial variability that exists in Canadian cities, there is also a need to study patterns and relationships within urban areas at a smaller scale.

It is important to point out that the offence data for both Ottawa and Saskatoon obtained for this research consists only of the location and type of crime committed but does not include the address or any other characteristics of the offender. Some offending clearly occurs in or near the residence of the offender (such as domestic assault or minor property) and is, therefore, meaningfully understood by population and household characteristics of the surrounding small area (such as a neighbourhood). Other types of offending, such as break and enter, occur in or near the residence or workplace of the victim but not the residence of the offender indicating that knowledge of the local area may be relevant from the perspective of the target. Yet other offences, such as assaults, occur in public areas such as bar and entertainment districts, shopping areas and workplaces that bring together populations from many residential parts of the city. In these cases, there is clearly no direct relationship between the characteristics of local residents and offending patterns in the area.

This publication presents the results of three studies on crime and neighbourhood characteristics. Study # 1 examines crime and socio-economic status in Ottawa at the level of the dissemination area (DA), the smallest geographic unit for which census data is available. The working hypothesis for Study # 1 is that there is a positive relationship between crime and disadvantaged communities in Ottawa.

Study # 2 employs data for neighbourhoods in Saskatoon (geographic units significantly larger than DAs) to examine the relationship between crime, socio-economic status and segregation in the city.  Specifically, the study addresses the following research question: What are the predominant social and environmental characteristics that have an impact on crime in Saskatoon's neighbourhoods and how can the identification of suitable predictors of crime lead to public policy initiatives aimed at alleviating community crime and reducing levels of victimization?

Finally, Study # 3 re-aggregates Ottawa's DA level data to match the boundaries of the city's neighbourhoods. This new dataset is then re-analyzed and compared directly to the findings of the Saskatoon neighbourhood study, allowing a more meaningful comparison of the two cities. The effect of a change in the level of geography on the relationship between crime and neighbourhood characteristics is examined and discussed.

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