A snapshot comparison of Columbus’ crime to similar sized cities’ shows violent crime here is not out of line, but property crime is.
Statistics for 2014, the latest full-year available in the Uniform Crime Reports the FBI has kept since 1930, show Columbus outranked nine other Southern cities in burglaries, auto thefts and overall property crime. It came in second for larcenies.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation figures for comparable Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs showed Columbus in 2014 had more burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts than Albany, Athens, Augusta, Macon and Savannah.
Comparisons are tricky because going by population doesn’t account for variables such as density and poverty, and demographics such as youth.
The Ledger-Enquirer chose to compare Columbus, for which the FBI listed a 2014 population of 206,714, to these cities:
Savannah at 236,682; Montgomery, Ala., at 200,194; Huntsville, Ala., at 187,624; Chattanooga, Tenn., at 174,449; Knoxville, Tenn., at 184,362; Tallahassee, Fla., at 187,573; Richmond, Va., at 216,747; Amarillo, Texas, at 197,724; and Shreveport, La., at 200,184.
According to the FBI, Columbus in the category of overall property crime had 13,378 – well above Knoxville with 12,028. It beat Montgomery for the most burglaries 3,711 to 2,548. It had 1,172 auto thefts to Chattanooga’s 1,017. And only Knoxville had more larcenies, 9,216 to Columbus’ 8,495.
In the GBI’s MSA stats, Columbus among comparable metro areas ran the table on property crimes with 3,823 burglaries to Macon’s 2,760; 8,773 larcenies to Savannah’s 7,926; and 1,196 auto thefts to Savannah’s 906 and Macon’s 770.
The FBI warning
The FBI warns never to rank cities by its annual UCR: “Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale,” the FBI writes at www.fbi.gov.
Among the variables are population composition, “particularly youth concentration,” divorce and other aspects of “family cohesiveness,” criminal justice resources and whether residents are likely to report crime.
When a rash of property crime hits a midtown Columbus neighborhood, residents are likely to report it. And post it on social media. And gear up with security cameras, alarm systems and guns.
As a meeting of Mohina Woods residents worried about crime ended Feb. 25, Councilor Mike Baker told his constituents he knew some had bought their wives guns for Christmas.
“Please don’t leave those in your car, locked or unlocked,” he said.
Perception is reality, and so if you see things happening over and over again, it’s hard to reconcile the numbers with what you’re experiencing day-in and day-out.
Jennifer Tucker, Mohina Woods resident
Mohina Woods is the area south of Columbus State University’s main campus and north of Macon Road.
A series of break-ins prompted resident Jennifer Tucker to set up the evening meeting with city leaders, including Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, Police Chief Ricky Boren and his command staff.
The mayor reassured neighbors crime here has declined, according to police statistics, but hearing crime numbers are down over previous years doesn’t calm residents during a rash of break-ins.
“Perception is reality, and so if you see things happening over and over again, it’s hard to reconcile the numbers with what you’re experiencing day-in and day-out,” Tucker said.
Neighbors have been using the website Nextdoor.com to share reports, she said.
“You read their responses to the Nextdoor site and they’re very upset, and so I just wanted to take the initiative,” she said of setting the meeting.
Of the recent break-ins, she said: “I don’t know if it’s a wave; I don’t know how long it’s been going on, but there’s enough incidents, chronically, and I think it’s the ‘chronic’ part of it. It’s not a couple of times a year. It’s chronic. And I think that with people is what wears on them over time.”
The youth factor
Boren told the 80 or so residents at the Richards Middle School meeting that juvenile offenders are a recurring headache because they can’t be jailed like adults.
“Juveniles do a lot of crimes, and there’s very little we can do with them,” he said.
In a Ledger-Enquirer interview, Tomlinson also noted that:
“When I hear such-and-such neighborhood had 12 break-ins over the weekend of cars, I’m almost certain that was 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds, and they were being directed by uncles or big brothers. ... And a large number of our house break-ins are also young people.”
Young offenders committing nonviolent crimes rarely are incarcerated, she said:
“They have to have had quite a record of burglary or robbery before they’re even detained, so we may take them in, but we either have to release them back home, where largely there’s no supervision, and they crawl out the window or leave the minute we pull away, or somebody comes to get them, and that person is probably the person who sent them out to begin with.”
Juveniles do a lot of crimes, and there’s very little we can do with them.
Police Chief Ricky Boren
Adults may operate in burglary teams to commit dozens of break-ins daily. That stops abruptly once police break up the ring, because the adults go to jail and to Superior Court, where judges are less forgiving of repeat offenders.
“When you break up a ring of adult burglaries or robberies, that quiets it,” said Tomlinson. “That’s usually the end of that.” The neighborhood may go a year or longer before more break-ins occur.
“But when you have these kids, they’re back out the next day,” the mayor said. “If they know a neighborhood is vulnerable, they’ll go back again and again. ... We really are having to evolve with this new era of using kids to commit crime.”
Assistant District Attorney Wayne Jernigan Jr., who regularly handles juvenile prosecutions, said police arresting a minor contact a juvenile intake officer with the state Department of Juvenile Justice, and that officer checks the suspect’s record.
For misdemeanors, juveniles are released home, Jernigan said. But those with three previous felony adjudications, offenses that include burglary and other thefts, may be “designated felons” subject to 36 months of restricted custody, including 18 months in a youth detention center. The rest of their time may be spent in a group home, the prosecutor said.
Juvenile car thieves may be designated felons on their second offense, and subject to 60 days in restrictive custody, he said.
Changes in the law over the years have reduced the time judges may incarcerate an underage offender, he said.
He agreed that adults recruit juveniles to commit thefts and deliver the loot to be fenced. “I have seen that personally in a number of cases,” he said.
Poverty and density
The mayor cites three more factors affecting crime.
One is the suburban neighborhood transition from longtime residents to rental property:
“We have a deterioration of the suburban ring around the city because of age, so you’ve got transitional housing, more volatile communities in that area, and people who aren’t connected to that particular neighborhood coming in, living for a year, and moving, and that can create low-quality housing because they’re not investing in it, absentee landowners, things of that nature.”
Poverty’s to be considered, the mayor said:
“There’s a direct correlation between crime and poverty. ... We do see generally that crime is coming from very large swaths of poverty, so where there’s broad hopelessness, lack of opportunities, no fabric of the community, not just family instability, but there are no mentors, neighbors who are concerned, because there’s sort of a spotty population, a lot of vacant, boarded and abandoned homes.”
A third factor is population density: The mayor told the Mohina Woods folks about Davenport, Iowa, which by population might be thought comparable to Columbus. It so lacked density that neighbors would have to get in their cars and drive to go kill each other.
There’s a direct correlation between crime and poverty.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson
The more density, the easier crime is to commit, and more personal disputes arise where people are packed in: “There’s a direct correlation between density and crime,” Tomlinson said.
But Census figures show Columbus’ density and poverty countywide do not top the other cities compared here.
Columbus at 216.39 square miles had the most land of the 10 cities, topping Huntsville at 209.05 and Montgomery at 159.57. It beat only Huntsville for density, with 877.5 per square mile vs. 861.5. Richmond at 59.81 square miles led the pack with 3,414.7 people per square mile.
In the percentage of people living in poverty — which the Census calculates by occupants and income per household, not a single annual income — Columbus at 19.6 percent topped Huntsville at 16.8 and Amarillo at 17.4, but all the other cities had more, with Tallahassee leading at 30.2 percent.
That doesn’t mean parts of Columbus aren’t high-density and high-poverty, but any gauge of overall crime by population requires a similar measure of poverty and density.
Checking other measures, such as transience, the Census says Columbus’ percentage of people who’ve lived in their home more than a year ranked ninth of the 10 cities. Columbus at 74.6 percent fell behind Knoxville (83.9), Shreveport (83.3), Savannah (81.9), Amarillo (80.8), Huntsville (80.7), Chattanooga (80.2), Montgomery (77.3) and Richmond (76.6).
Columbus again ranked ninth in another measure: the percentage of residents with at least a college degree. At 22.6 percent, it tailed Tallahassee (47.2), Huntsville (39), Richmond (34.8), Montgomery (31.5), Knoxville (30.3), Savannah (26.1), Chattanooga (25.8), Shreveport (24.8) and Amarillo (22.7).
Here’s a quick set of other economic measures:
• Median household income. Columbus at $41,339 came in fourth, behind Huntsville ($48,881), Amarillo ($45,984) and Montgomery ($43,702).
• Percentage of home ownership. Columbus at 52.6 ranked sixth, behind Amarillo (61.9), Huntsville (60), Montgomery (58.9), Shreveport (56.1) and Chattanooga (53.6).
• Value of owner-occupied homes. Columbus at $133,300 again ranked sixth, behind Richmond ($196,400), Tallahassee ($180,500), Huntsville ($158,400), Savannah ($145,900) and Chattanooga ($138,100).
• Percentage of multi-unit homes. Columbus at 29.8 ranked seventh, behind Tallahassee (44.9), Richmond (42.8), Knoxville (37.9), Savannah (35.4), Chattanooga (34.8) and Huntsville (30.8).
Checking the youth demographic, Census numbers by city show the percentage of people younger than 18 in Columbus, at 24.3, fell behind Amarillo (27.5), Shreveport (25) and Montgomery (24.9).
The stats to come
In a recent interview, Columbus Police Maj. Gil Slouchick, who heads the department’s investigative bureau, said 2015 statistics will show a notable decline in crime.
“Burglaries came down a ton,” he said. Columbus had 2,560 burglaries in 2015, the lowest since 2004, when police reported 2,297.
Slouchick credited that decline to “intelligence-based policing” — identifying and targeting neighborhoods reporting a rash of burglaries, with detectives and patrol officers working in teams to capture suspects.
Police also worked with agencies in the surrounding counties of Harris, Russell and Lee, forming a task force that caught thieves crossing jurisdictional lines to commit break-ins, the major said.
Boren said one ring of thieves was stealing cars in Columbus and using them to commit burglaries in outlying counties.
A tactical squad tracked a stolen car to a “stash house” a ring of thieves operated from, he said. As a result, the multi-agency squad put 40 people in jail. The follow-up investigation showed the thefts ranged as far as Troup County, along with Russell, Lee and Harris, the chief said.
Police also caught a three-man team suspected in 48 local smash-and-grab business burglaries, Boren said.
Maybe one reason Columbus has so much property crime requires no statistical analysis: Stealing is profitable here.
Thieves would not return to the same neighborhood if they gained nothing by going back.
During the Richards Middle School meeting, a resident told of his wife’s sitting in their driveway, their kids in the car with her, with the vehicle’s engine running.
A man passing by stopped and walked up to the driver’s side. When he saw the car was occupied, he asked if she would tell him the time, and then left.
Boren said that was likely a thief who thought the car had been left running to warm up. Columbus’ auto thefts would drop by half to a third if people wouldn’t leave their cars unlocked and running, either outside their homes or a business they’re visiting, he said.
Police cited other examples of victims’ making theft easy, such as husbands and wives leaving spare keys to each other’s vehicles in their consoles, facilitating a two-car theft.
Some people still have the unfortunate habit of leaving valuable possessions such as expensive electronics in plain sight overnight, when most car break-ins occur.
Like most urban areas, Columbus isn’t the kind of place where residents can leave their doors unlocked, their windows open and their garage doors up, Boren told those gathered at Richards Middle School.
In a Ledger-Enquirer interview, Tomlinson agreed, to a point:
“If you don’t want to be a victim of crime, take certain steps,” she said. “But at the same time, you shouldn’t live as if you’re in some lawless community, and we’re not a lawless community. .... I think we’ve made great progress, and I’m really committed to changing the entire dynamic in which crime occurs, because I think that will be a very long-lasting effect.”
2014 FBI CRIME RATES
2014 CENSUS DATA
The percentage of people living below the poverty level is based on 2009-2013 Census calculations.