If not for Columbus’ Labor Day weekend killing spree, all types of crime here in 2010 would have declined -- steeply, in some categories. Last year the city almost made it through a scorching summer without an uptick in homicides, but four violent deaths over five days in early September shot the number up, so by year’s end Columbus had 15 slayings, two more than in 2009.
Still, the homicide numbers for the past two years are a significant improvement over the 30 cases Columbus reported in 2008.
And all other serious crimes for 2010 were down, with auto theft showing the steepest drop: 1,007 for 2010, which was 513 fewer than the 1,520 Columbus reported in 2009, a difference of 33.75 percent.
Columbus isn’t the only U.S. city with declining crime stats. The whole country has seen a decline in crime, which last increased overall five years ago.
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Columbus police credit the city’s drop in auto thefts to some high-tech gadgetry they use to catch car thieves, but they won’t specify publicly what they’re using for fear of tipping off the perpetrators.
Lt. Bill Rawn, the police department statistician, said he had hoped the police motor vehicle theft unit would end the year with fewer than 1,000 auto thefts, something that hasn’t happened in about 10 years.
“The last time we had fewer vehicles than this stolen was in 2001 when we had 922, and 1997 when we had 957,” he said.
Also in decline were other kinds of theft, generally categorized as “larceny.” Columbus had 8,959 for 2010, 392 fewer than the 9,351 reported in 2009.
Burglaries dropped, too, from 3,798 in 2009 to 3,452 in 2010, down 9 percent.
Also decreasing were violent crimes other than homicide. Robberies went from 575 in 2009 to 477 last year, down by 17 percent. Aggravated assaults went from 511 to 476, dropping almost 7 percent. Rapes went from 44 to 37, a difference of only seven, but a 16 percent drop.
Reversing a trend
All these offenses are what police call “Part I” crimes, the more serious violations cities annually report to the FBI, which compiles crime data nationwide.
Columbus’ Part I crimes overall were down almost 9 percent over 2009, going from 15,812 to 14,423, a difference of 1,389.
A Ledger-Enquirer analysis of statistics provided by the police department indicates this is the most significant reduction in Part I crimes since 2004, the last time the city had fewer than 15,000.
Figures derived from raw data show Columbus began the decade with fewer than 12,000 Part I crimes in 2000 and topped 13,000 in 2003 and 2004 before the numbers abruptly spiked, from 13,356 in 2004 to 15,243 in 2005.
That spike appears to coincide with the city’s loss of police officers in 2005 and 2006, when the department fell almost 50 short of what then was a full force of 388.
Police Chief Ricky Boren made responding to 911 calls the top priority, pulling personnel from other duties to keep enough officers on the street. Residents complained of crime waves hitting their neighborhoods.
Some homeowners banded together, arming themselves and hiring their own security.
Their unease helped then-Mayor Jim Wetherington pass a sales tax in July 2008, pledging to invest 70 percent of the revenue in public safety, to hire more law enforcement officers -- increasing the police force by 100 to 488 -- and to expand the county jail.
The department still struggles to maintain a full force as veteran officers retire.
It had 19 vacancies to fill Thursday when recruiters attended a job fair at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center.
The mayor’s take
With Wetherington’s retirement last year, Columbus now has a new mayor and public safety director, Teresa Tomlinson, who sees the 2010 crime stats as evidence the Local Option Sales Tax or LOST is having a positive impact on public safety.
“It looks like we’re finally seeing the effects of our 1-cent LOST and hiring of the new police officers and some of the resources we are able to bring to the community,” she said. “So it looks like we’re doing better, but of course when crime happens in your neighborhood or to you, it doesn’t matter that there was only one or a dozen, and that it was down from last year.”
What she sees as particularly promising is the decline in “stepping stone” crimes -- the auto thefts, larcenies and burglaries that can lead to robberies and homicides.
“That’s a good trending indicator, because those are individuals who usually escalate to other crimes,” she said.
Tomlinson was in the heat of the mayoral campaign when last year’s Labor Day killing spree made headlines. Voters wanted to know what candidates would do about it.
Once a killer’s ready to pull the trigger, there’s not much that can be done, she said.
You have to “back it up” to the events preceding that, to catch the criminal breaking into homes, robbing stores or dealing drugs, before he kills someone.
“For law enforcement, it really comes to looking at backing it up to burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, getting those people off the streets, and hopefully giving them an opportunity for redemption and turning their lives around that will start to begin to affect the murder rate,” she said.
Pattern and prediction
One of 2010’s more dramatic examples of crime escalation was the Sept. 7 fatal shooting of a local radio disc jockey who caught a man allegedly burglarizing his Carter Avenue home. The intruder had a gun police said was taken in an Aug. 11 burglary in the same area, and had on Aug. 6 pulled a gun on another resident who came home about 2 p.m. that day to find the man in his home, detectives said.
Had that suspect been apprehended before Sept. 7 for the earlier break-ins, the homicide might never have occurred.
Police say one tool that could help them track such incidents, identify patterns and pinpoint prospective targets is an automated records-management system. Estimated to cost about $2.5 million, it would facilitate real-time crime reporting.
The computer system would eliminate the lag time in officers’ filing hard-copy reports and clerks re-entering the data by hand, allowing analysts to see crime as it happens, and recognize where it’s likely to occur next.
Tomlinson said if the police department requests that system in its budget, that will be a priority for the 2012 fiscal year beginning July 1.
On Tuesday, the city’s Crime Prevention Commission briefed Columbus Council on some proposals to divert people from criminal activity. One program is aimed at helping nonviolent felons leaving prison find steady work.
Each will be assigned a case manager to assess the convict’s work skills and help find employment, said Seth Brown, the city’s crime prevention director.
Columbus Tech will assist in gauging technical skills, Brown said. Felons who are electricians, for example, will be assessed to determine their level of competence before providing employer incentives to hire them, Brown said.
Other initiatives are aimed at treating the mentally ill to keep them out of jail, providing counseling for at-risk youth and their families, and offering mentors and activities other than sports to other kids, he said.
National crime decline
Columbus is not the only city to experience a drop in crime in recent years. The FBI has reported the U.S. crime rate’s in a steady decline; the last time it increased was in 2006.
Last year the feds said violent and property crime for 2009 was down about 5 percent over 2008. Homicide dropped 7 percent; robberies declined by 8 percent.
In December the FBI said crime stats for the first six months of 2010 showed a decline over the first half of 2009. Robbery was down almost 11 percent, homicide 7 percent, rape 6 percent and aggravated assault 4 percent.
Nationwide, property crime overall did not as significantly decline, comparing the first half of 2009 to 2010, the FBI said: It was down just 2.8 percent. Burglary dropped only 1.4 percent; larceny only 2.3 percent. The more impressive drop was auto theft, down 9.7 percent.
An interesting twist on the stats was in geography, as the FBI divides the country into the South, Midwest, West and Northeast. Again comparing the first half of 2009 to the same six months of 2010, the South topped all others in crime’s decline.
Violent crime dropped 7.8 percent in the South; 7.2 percent in the West and Midwest; and just .02 percent in the Northeast.
Homicide was down 12 percent in the South, 7.1 percent in the West and 6.3 percent in the Midwest. The Northeast was the only region to report homicides increased, by 5.7 percent.
Property crime dropped 3.6 percent in the South, 3.1 percent in the West, 2.5 percent in the Midwest, and .02 percent in the Northeast.