In Columbus, violent crime is more a measure of degree than frequency.
It can be shockingly brutal, as residents were reminded Jan. 4, when a grandmother, her son and granddaughter were found beaten to death on Bentley Drive off Macon Road.
But when a social media site in 2013 chose to portray Columbus as “the most dangerous city” in America, it based that conclusion on the city’s rate of property crime, not violent crime.
Why? Possibly because the website that did the ranking belonged to an alarm company.
Property crime can trigger violent crime, as in the 2010 murder of Heath Jackson, killed by a burglar who first tried to tie Jackson up, then gunned him down as he ran outside.
For this analysis of violent crime, Columbus with a population of 206,714, is compared to these nine cities: Savannah (236,682); Montgomery, Ala. (200,194); Huntsville, Ala. (187,624); Chattanooga, Tenn. (174,449); Knoxville, Tenn. (184,362); Tallahassee, Fla. (187,573); Richmond, Va. (216,747); Amarillo, Texas (197,724); and Shreveport, La. (200,184).
Using FBI statistics for 2014, the last full year available, Columbus in the general category of “violent crime” with 1,101 fell behind Tallahassee (1,758), Chattanooga (1,699), Huntsville (1,467), Knoxville (1,612), Shreveport (1,444), Amarillo (1,334) and Richmond (1,254).
Columbus had 22 murders in 2014. Richmond had 41, Montgomery 35, Savannah 32, and Chattanooga 27.
Columbus had 47 rapes. Amarillo had 228, Tallahassee 198, Knoxville 135, Shreveport 121, Chattanooga 106, Huntsville 104 and Savannah 65.
Columbus had 521 aggravated assaults in 2014, fewer than Tallahassee (1,239), Chattanooga (1,218), Knoxville (1,052), Huntsville (958), Shreveport (903), Amarillo (826), Richmond (605), and Montgomery (526).
Columbus ranked high only in robbery and arson.
The FBI said Columbus had 511 robberies, second only to Richmond with 569. The next closest city was Savannah with 459.
Columbus had 47 arsons, second to Shreveport with 62, and not so far above Richmond with 44.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s figures for comparable metropolitan statistical areas show Savannah in 2014 had the most murders (35) and robberies (553); Athens had the most rapes (116); Albany had the most aggravated assaults (725), and Macon had the most arson (143).
Crime statistics typically dominate the news in late August and early September, when the FBI releases data for the previous year. It won’t distribute its 2015 Uniform Crime Report until late summer.
The agency warns the news media never to rank cities according to its statistics, as too many variables affect the numbers.
But social media sites love to rank cities with superlatives, and Columbus over the years has been named best and worst in various categories, including the alarm company’s calling it the “most dangerous” city in 2013.
But “most dangerous” should be measured by violent crime, not property crime, and by that comparison, Columbus does not top the charts.
“One of the myths is that we have a high murder rate,” Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, whose position makes her the city’s public safety director, told the Ledger-Enquirer in a recent interview. Even one murder is too many, she added, “but regardless, we do tend to be lower.”
There are so few violent crimes in Columbus that are just random.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson
Violence here rarely is random, she added:
“In a high number of incidents, violence is related to relationships of some sort – domestic violence, friends fighting over women, fighting over men, fighting over all sorts of things. ... There are so few violent crimes in Columbus that are just random.”
This is true in most cases, but not all, and it can infuriate the friends and families of those who are the victims of random, violent crime – as in the case of Jackson, the local disc jockey who around lunchtime came home to the house he rented at Carter Avenue and 17th Street to find a burglar inside.
Still the mayor regularly uses that point to reassure residents fearing assault.
“I tell them, ‘If you’re not living a risk-based life in Columbus, Georgia, your possibility of being involved in any sort of violent crime is remote, at best. ... Our violent crime is actually average or below average.”
Battling a bad reputation
So what cultivates this atmosphere of fear, and perpetuates the sense Columbus is a violent place?
Tomlinson said one factor is regional news reporting: People turn on their TVs and hear about homicides and home invasions that happened elsewhere, and overlook the precise location.
“The media is reporting regionally now, and particularly the TV media,” she said. “So when I get up – and I’m the mayor, so I know what’s happening; the police chief tells me immediately – and it says three people are being held hostage at gunpoint; SWAT teams are responding, I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m texting the chief, and it’s LaGrange or Albany or some other city this horrible thing is happening in.”
The most dramatic crime story of the day usually makes the local news, no matter where it happens: “Crime is an interesting story to report and it’s an easy story to report. You’ve got supply and you’ve got demand. So that’s a perfect match. ... We have a regionalized media concept in this day when they’re able to broadcast more widely, and also digitally, so their websites are interesting to people who live outside our jurisdiction. It’s overwhelming to the senses.”
The perception of rampant violence also is perpetuated on social media, as neighbors share unconfirmed rumors, she said.
Reports of gunfire no one can verify have become a recent trend, she said: Neighbors online post that a gun battle occurred overnight, but no one saw it and no shell casings remain. “So those two don’t connect,” she said. “I’m not really sure what’s going on. It could be fireworks.”
When she first moved to the Overlook neighborhood in the 1990s, before social media, she was on an email list alerting residents to crime reports, and felt “besieged,” she said.
“I remember I got home and I opened up my email and I said, ‘I’m going to move. I’m done. I’m out of here.’ This was back in 1998, ’99. If I can feel that way, I can tell you, other people do, too, as they are on Facebook pages – which are good, and we encourage, for neighborhoods. But if you don’t know how to digest that information, or the administrator of that Facebook page is not really vigilant about keeping people to the actual facts, it can hugely misinform.”
Comparing Columbus to similar cities can dispel notions that violence is common here, she said, and she prefers that to letting online rankings and neighborhood rumors misinform the public.
Other mayors would rather not discuss crime at all, she said.
“A lot of mayors say, ‘What are you doing, releasing quarterly crime statistics? You’re just asking for trouble.’ I really think citizens need to get used to looking at these statistics and seeing the trends, and they need to get used to comparing us intelligently to other communities, because what happens is if they aren’t, then they become victim to some home alarm system company that sent out a mass email saying Columbus is the most dangerous place to live, just because they’re trying to sell some home alarms.
“I would prefer that our citizens be able to say, ‘Well, that’s not true; I know that these other cities are similar to us, or are having more trouble, so obviously we’re doing something right, and have been doing something right for several years.’”