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MEAN SEASON: Columbus stats show spring, summer the time for crime

Crime has a season, but follows no calendar.

Authorities track it by the calendar year, but the measure is artificial: Crime doesn’t stop or start on any particular day, nor rise or fall according to the month.

Like a wave it has its crest and trough, over a year’s time, but that time doesn’t start Jan. 1 and end Dec. 31.

Last week city leaders bragged that crime in Columbus fell for the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2010, but by the time they put out the news release, the city since June 30 had recorded six more homicides, bringing this year’s total to 10, so far.

Last year Columbus had six homicides by mid-August. It ended the year with 15, and a 16th victim died this year from gunshot wounds sustained Aug. 19, 2010.

Two factors make emphasizing crime rates for the first half of the year tricky. One is simple math: The year’s first half has fewer days than the second -- 181 days January-June (182 in a leap year) and 184 days July-December.

What difference does a day make?

To provide the FBI with local stats, Columbus police track “Part I” crimes, considered the more serious offenses: homicide, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, larceny and arson.

Police reported 6,142 such crimes for the first half of this year, averaging 34 a day. If February had three more days, it could have 100-plus more crimes.

The other factor that complicates weighing Columbus crime by a year’s first half is this: By the time those stats come out in July or August -- typically it takes police 30-45 days to compile a month’s reports -- crime is just starting to peak.

A Ledger-Enquirer analysis of Part I crimes over the past 12 years in Columbus shows no particular month-to-month trend. But divide years into quarters, and a pattern emerges: Crime typically drops in fall and winter and spikes in spring and summer.

Add Part I crimes for the first and fourth quarters of 2010 and they total 6,433. Add 2010’s second and third quarters, and they total 7,815.

But as crime knows no calendar, a better way to illustrate its crests and troughs is not to combine a year’s beginning and end, but to create a continuum by adding the fourth quarter of one year to the first quarter of the next: After recording 7,815 Part I crimes April-September 2010, Columbus counted 6,137 from October 2010 through March 2011.

The trend is not always consistent, but usually the pattern holds. Go back a few years, and the wave rolls like this: October 2005-March 2006, 6,946; April-September 2006, 7,794; October 2006-March 2007, 7,556; April-September 2007, 7,717; October 2007-March 2008, 7,118; April-September 2008, 8,119; October 2008-March 2009, 7,263; April 2009-September 2009, 8,386.

Over the rise

As Labor Day approaches, residents will be reminded of the Labor Day weekend killing spree of 2010, when four people were killed in five days. It seemed crime was spiraling out of control.

In fact, it already was dropping from its summer peak, though that’s no solace to victims’ families.

Here’s the 2010 month-by-month Part I crime tally: January 1,017; February 887; March 1,177; April 1,271; May 1,532; June 1,298; July 1,253; August 1,241; September 1,217; October 1,200; November 1,063; December 1,092.

A spate of homicides that made headlines in the waning months of 2010 overshadowed what for Columbus would be good news, once police finished their yearly report: Overall, crime last year declined significantly for the first time since 2004.

Columbus had 14,248 Part I crimes in 2010 -- 1,360 fewer than the 15,608 reported in 2009. For the five preceding years, the crime rate had climbed, starting with an abrupt spike in 2005, when Columbus had 15,243 Part I crimes -- 1,887 more than the 13,356 reported in 2004. That had been a slight drop from 2003, when the city had 13,819.

From 1999 through 2002, the crime rate was relatively even, hovering around 12,000 Part I crimes annually.

Once the city topped 15,000 in 2005, it hung there -- 15,099 in 2006; 15,178 in 2007; 15,430 in 2008 -- until last year.

Columbus’ rise in crime prior to 2010 doesn’t seem to fit a national trend. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, violent crime fell 15 percent from 2000 to 2009, and property crime dropped 16 percent over that period.

Counting crimes

How 2011 will fare is impossible to forecast now, with crime still in its summer crest. Columbus police have not compiled their July report, and the city has no computerized records-management system to provide real-time crime reporting.

Police Chief Ricky Boren wants that system, and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson supports acquiring it, but city leaders haven’t decided how to pay for it.

“The hurdle we have to get past is the cost,” she said. “The vendors we speak to quote $2.5 million. That’s a chunk of change to come out of the police department budget.”

Columbus Council has to determine whether the funding can come from a 1 percent Local Option Sales Tax that voters approved in 2008. Seventy percent of the revenue from that tax is devoted to public safety.

“With the LOST proceeds, there have been questions by some councilors as to whether these types of costs are those that should be covered by the LOST funds, or whether LOST funds are only for narrowly defined items,” Tomlinson added. “Chief Boren and I are trying to negotiate a payment schedule that would allow easier funding.”

Other law enforcement agencies may chip in, says the mayor, who hopes for a better price and payment schedule, and hopes council will use sales tax funds for the purchase.

Police say the system not only would enable them to track crime as it happens, but immediately recognize trends to determine where it’s most likely to happen next.

Summertime climb

Part I crimes through June of this year show the usual summer climb: 1,034 in January; 793 in February; 991 in March; 1,072 in April; 1,107 in May; 1,145 in June.

Why does crime spike in summer?

Police say a primary factor is demographic: People are more likely to commit crimes when they’re young, in their teens and 20s. Teens are out of school then. And more people in general -- including those in their 20s, who are more mobile and have more access to alcohol than school-age teens -- are out and about.

The circumstances provide more opportunities for crime: more perpetrators of prime age, more victims, more chances for friction among people lacking the maturity to manage their anger and check their impulses.

“Jam them together, and they’re close together, and all of a sudden you’ve got friction,” says police Lt. Bill Rawn, who compiles the department’s crime stats. “You’ve got friction. You’ve got somebody taking care of friction. You’ve got cuttings, shootings, etc.”

Boren says property crimes climb, too: “During the summertime, you definitely see spikes in three areas, burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts. Usually, the trend goes down after school starts. We’ve seen that a lot.”

One crime seems to have no season: homicide.

Most often involving people who know each other, sometimes motivated by personal conflict, it can happen anytime, fueled by alcohol or illicit drugs or domestic disputes.

“It’s all over the chart,” says Boren, who recalls working eight cases one December in the '80s. “What can you say? You cannot have a police officer in every home at any given time.”

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