Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Despite the poor economy, there has been a surprising decrease in crime in some metro Atlanta communities, including Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. The city of Atlanta has seen a slight uptick in the last year, but since 2001 the numbers of violent and property crimes are way down. But a criminologist at Georgia State University writes that the new FBI statistics can be misleading and fleeting. Also, I talk with a neighborhood safety veteran about how crimes are changing on a street level and how his community has improved.
Commenting is open below my interview with Greg Scott.
By Robert R. Friedmann
Crime statistics happens to someone else somewhere else. When it happens to us, crime is at a 100 percent level. A single murder, burglary, rape or robbery is one too many.
Yet, it is important to look at crime statistics because they provide a helpful, albeit limited, reflection of the public health of a given city, county, state and the nation, particularly so when they change. These numbers are used (and abused) by researchers, policy makers, media, and politicians to make a statement about our well-being and what to do (or not to do) about it. We have an insatiable addiction for numbers and usually do a very good job with reporting and predicting financial trends, the weather, educational achievement and health issues.
However, the situation regarding crime statistics is still dismal. Most reports on crime statistics are at least a year or two late, limited to raw figures or, at best, limited to crime rates that rely only on raw figures and population size but exclude other important dimensions that are associated with crime. This results in comparisons of cities that are then unfairly ranked by this limited calculation.
Atlanta was ranked for many years as one of the most violent cities compared to other cities or the nation. A more sophisticated analysis, carried out over several years, showed that on homicide, Atlanta actually ranked towards the bottom of cities with population larger than 250,000.
But even an examination of raw crime figures and crime over a period of almost 50 years reveals a trend common to the city, state and nation: Virtually all index crimes (violence, property) started to climb in the mid to late 1960s, peaked in the middle 1990s and have declined ever since, returning to levels of the mid to late 1960s.
The national crime rate, the Georgia crime rate and the Atlanta crime rate dropped significantly from the 1990s to date. Interestingly enough, while Atlanta’s crime rate has been higher than that of Georgia and the nation, its decline has been faster and larger by more than double that of the national figures.
Somehow, when crime goes up, it receives alarming media attention and quick finger pointing. When the trend reverses, it takes more time to acknowledge, and then, explanations are sought as to what brought about this change.
Typically, criminologists associate dire economic stress with increases in index crimes. Yet the decline since the 1990s kept its pace irrespective of the changing economic times from growth to disaster. In other words, the downward trend of crime associated with better economic times did not stop when the economy declined. Indeed, the downward trend received fairly little public attention during the better economic times, and only during the tough economic times questions started to surface as to the reasons that the “expected” increase did not materialize.
Crime is produced by the (criminals in the) community, and public safety needs to be co-produced by a strong partnership between law enforcement and formal and informal social institutions. The Atlanta Police Department has made major strides in the last few years, and that could be the key factor explaining Atlanta’s faster crime decline.
Community factors explain the rest, as they do for other cities and the nation displaying the same trend: Longer incarceration of repeat offenders (three strikes laws), the decline in drug use and addiction, and decreased opportunity are among the likely factors accounting for the ongoing decline.
How long will this trend continue is an entirely different question.
Robert R. Friedmann is professor emeritus of criminal justice and director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
By Tom Sabulis
Greg Scott is vice president for public safety for the Inman Park Neighborhood Association in Atlanta. Scott, 46, recently addressed the latest crime statistics and other security issues from a street-level perspective.
The falling crime numbers around metro Atlanta: The statistics are encouraging, but I don’t put a lot of faith in statistics because they take out the human element. They give an overall idea of crime trends, but I don’t think they give the real picture. While I’ve definitely seen a drop in the number of incidents we’ve had in the neighborhood over the past five years, I’ve also noticed a shift in the type of crime we are seeing. But I think a lot of that drop is attributed to the neighborhood being much more vigilant — the fact that we have a privately funded security patrol that the neighborhood funds through membership. We’ve also worked hard to improve our relationship with the Atlanta Police Department to make sure that we’re getting the kind of coverage that we need when we do have major incidents. But we still need to see some improvement.
The turning point for his neighborhood’s patrol: We started out with a much smaller-level patrol. It was off-duty APD (Atlanta Police Department) officers in their own cars, unmarked, four hours a day, five days a week. There was a residential membership fee of about $150 a year to pay for it. Five years ago, the neighborhood association decided to purchase a private patrol car. Part of the reason was that our biggest issues five years ago were residential burglaries and car break-ins, and we felt visibility was lacking in the patrol coverage. We felt like we needed that car out there on the street, letting the bad guys know that they were being watched and noticed and they weren’t able to skulk about and figure out ways to get in our homes and cars. We’ve noticed it’s made a huge impact on that area of crime.
How crime has evolved in the neighborhood: There’s been an increase in business-related crime. We’ve seen more armed robberies of people coming and going from restaurants, due to an increase in the number of bars and restaurants and people coming into the neighborhood to enjoy the business side of Inman Park, as opposed to before when we were [just] a quiet residential area.
How to elevate neighborhood safety: The first thing to do is get your neighborhood engaged, get your neighbors to start talking to one another, to start communicating about crime and about what’s going on. Our patrol would not be as successful as it is if we didn’t have neighbors using it and actually making phone calls to the [patrol] car and calling suspicious people. People have such a reticence to pick up the phone and say something; they feel like they’re being nosy. A “see something, say something” mentality is something we try to impart on our neighbors. Things like [group email lists] list-serves and social media help as well.
Atlanta Police Department has improved: I think APD still has a long way to go from being a reactive force as opposed to a proactive force. Part of the reason our patrol is so successful is that it keeps crime from happening. It’s the visibility and the proactive nature of it that keeps those crimes from happening beforehand. I do think APD has made great strides as far as its commitment to the in-town neighborhoods. And I think they’ve made some strides in beefing up the number of police officers. The issue I see down the road is retention. If we have 2,000 officers on the street, [we need to make sure] making sure we’re keeping those 2,000 officers with APD for their careers and not going off to other municipalities and areas in the region after being trained here. We’ve spent all this money to train them.