The link spread like wildfire among York's social-media users.

Click on it and arrive at NeighborhoodScout.com, a website claiming York City has earned the rank of No. 18 on its list of the "Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S."

The city's critics cheered. Politicians cringed. And York City Police Chief Wes Kahley hoped it would go away quickly.

It hasn't.

Since the list began circulating several months ago, Kahley said, he's been getting phone calls, emails and -- on at least one occasion -- an earful at the grocery store about the ranking.

Mayor Kim Bracey also felt compelled to weigh in. She issued a statement in defense of York's crime-fighting efforts.

"Statistics are often configured or designed to tell a story. Sometimes those stories aren't helpful and can cause unnecessary concern, creating unfounded fears," she wrote. "Using research from factually accurate sources indicates that crime in our city of York is down."

The stats: In fact, overall crime in York City is down 15 percent since 2003, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system issued by Pennsylvania State Police.

Crime statistics are recorded by individual departments, collected by state police, forwarded to the FBI and compiled into the UCR.

NeighborhoodScout.com produced its latest ranking by calculating the number of Part 1 violent crimes per capita using the 2011 UCR statistics submitted to the FBI and the population of each city that year.

The website focused on four categories of violent crime -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. In each of those categories, the statistics show crime increased significantly in 2011 compared to other years since 2003.

But crime statistics never tell the whole story. For example, that doesn't take into account the department's effort to improve its record-keeping, or that York City's record of minor assaults in 2011 was less than half what it was in 2010.

Another thing to consider: The website drew its conclusions based on just half of the categories considered Part 1 crimes -- in other words, the most serious -- by the FBI.

The other categories of Part 1 crime are burglary, larceny,

motor vehicle theft and arson.

A York Dispatch analysis of UCR statistics dating back to 2003 shows York City's total number of Part 1 crimes has actually decreased 25 percent in the past decade.

Factor in the less serious Part 2 offenses, and York City has experienced a 15 percent decline in crime during the same time period. That's despite the fact York City gained 3,462 residents between 2003 and 2011, according to census statistics.

Basically, Kahley said, the "most dangerous" list is bogus.

"Its methodology is invalid," he said.

The rankings: But is it true? Is York really more dangerous than, say, Baltimore? Does the word "dangerous" make sense at all?

Location Inc., which owns NeighborhoodScout.com, concluded York is the most dangerous city in Pennsylvania.

Among the cities a bit higher -- meaning more dangerous -- on the list are Spartanburg, S.C.; Chelsea, Mass.; and Inkster, Mich., to name a few. Lower on the rankings are places like Baltimore and Chicago.

Andrew Schiller, the company's founder and CEO, said in an email that Location Inc. has been ranking cities like this for five years. He said the company's mission is "to reveal the truth about locations."

Schiller defended his company's methodology, saying the list is intended to spark a conversation among the public and community leaders about crime and ways to mitigate it.

"In all the years we have done this, there is one constant," he wrote. "If the local police don't like the result, then they say the study was flawed. If the local police like the result, they say the study was conducted accurately."

The comparisons: Crime statistics are a useful tool if you're trying to gauge crime trends in a single place over time, Kahley said.

But this study compares places to each other using statistics from the UCR system -- something, Kahley pointed out, the FBI explicitly discourages.

"Since crime is a sociological phenomenon influenced by a variety of factors, the FBI discourages ranking the agencies and using the data as a measurement of law enforcement effectiveness," according to the FBI's website.

Asked to comment specifically on Location Inc.'s use of the UCR statistics, an FBI spokesman cited the agency's online warning that says such rankings "lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents."

Schiller said his company's intention is not to compare the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies but to assess the safety of places.

"This is like rating the safety of automobiles," he wrote. "As such, the public has a right to know how safe a car is, just like they have the right to know how the safety of any city compares to others."

The year in question: In 2011 -- the year analyzed by Location Inc. -- violent crimes in the city did increase significantly compared to 2010.

That's true in all four "violent" categories. For example, 2011 was the worst York City has had in terms of homicides since 2003. That year, 16 people were killed in the city at the hand of another person.

The rate of rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults also jumped.

Kahley attributed some of the increase to a small group of criminals who, he said, caused problems at the end of the year.

But it's also linked to the way the York City Police Department records crime statistics, the chief said.

Basically, Kahley said, the department has taken steps in recent years to more accurately classify assaults.

In other words, what the department might have once lumped into the Part 2 "other assaults" category is now being accurately included in Part 1 assaults, Kahley said.

The numbers reflect what the chief is saying. Aggravated assaults -- which include assaults with a firearm and other weapons -- have increased 185 percent between 2003 and 2012 in the department's Part 1 statistics.

During the same time period, Part 2 assaults have decreased by 35 percent.

The chief's push for accurate record-keeping is most blatantly reflected in the 2011 statistics -- when aggravated assaults jumped from 131 in 2010 to 314 in 2011. Likewise, Part 2 assaults decreased from 386 in 2010 to 189 in 2011.

Overall, however, assaults -- no matter which category they're in -- are up 43 percent since 2003. Why is that?

In an email, Kahley said there's a nationwide trend of increased assaults with firearms. Beyond that, he said, it's tough to say for sure. Numbers don't typically provide enough context to reflect the truth of the situation, he said.

"Are we doing a better job of reporting domestic violence issues? Are we addressing more of these issues with simple assault arrests than in the past? Where we would have given a harassment citation in the past, are we now making a criminal arrest?" Kahley wrote. "I am not saying that the number has not risen, but I believe to say it is up 43 percent does not report things correctly as there can be many positive reasons why the reporting has gone up."

The victims: Another point to remember, Kahley said, is the majority of violent-crime victims are not simply innocent bystanders.

Most people are "not going to become a victim of a violent crime if they're not doing something they shouldn't be doing," he said.

Pro-active neighborhood policing is working, and York is "no more dangerous than any other urban area," he said.

That said, Kahley conceded the crime rate is "nowhere near where we need to be."

"I'd love to be totally bored to death," he said.

-- Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.