BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for January 4, 2010
Mayor Bell tends bar at downtown's Revolution this Tuesday

Project 20/10: High profile cases aside, crime declines dramatically (#8)

Aside from Duke lacrosse, there were some high-profile crime stories in the Bull City this past decade. And -- no surprise here, again -- they drew a disproportionate level of interest and media attention. 

In 2008, the murder of Duke student Abhijit Mahato and UNC student body president Eve Carson in two separate incidents, allegedly by two young Durham men, chilled the region and created a stir during and after the manhunt for their killers.

And bookending the decade, the 2000s opened with the death of Nortel executive Kathleen Peterson; her husband, unsuccessful mayoral candidate and author Michael Peterson, was accused and convicted of murdering Peterson in their Forest Hills home.

Both stories were tragedies, albeit tragedies that drew differential media and public attention (compared to everyday crime) thanks to the prominence or unusual circumstances of their deaths.

Sadly, there've been two dozen murders most years in Durham, few rivaling a scintilla of the public's interest that these cases did.

And Durham continues to draw attention throughout the region for having a crime rate that exceeds those of Raleigh and Cary, thanks to demographic differences and proximity issues that miss the fact that Durham rates right behind them as one of the safest cities in the state.

But amidst the media (and Realtor) obsession with crime and safety in the Bull City, one story has been drastically under-reported -- so much so, that I think ranks among the top twenty stories in Durham this decade.

Since the mid 1990s, per-capita crime rates have fallen dramatically in Durham, due what appears to be both population growth as well as a decline in nominal levels. Witness, for instance, the change in crime index rates from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports dating back to 1995:


In absolute numbers, per capita crime levels in Durham ended up dropping by almost half in the course of a decade.

In 1997, there were almost 120 crimes reported for every 1,000 residents -- including 33 homicides, 1,244 robberies, 9,801 larcenies, and just under 2,000 motor vehicle thefts.

Homicides never saw tremendous variation, averaging 27 per year over the period and never dipping below a dozen in a given year. Still, by 2008, the 24 homicides were joined by just 886 robberies, 7,584 larcenies, and 884 stolen motor vehicles.

Of course, some of the change is due to Durham's population growth, especially since the nominal number of crimes hasn't changed as significantly as the per-capita levels over the period:


And, yes, population grew significantly -- from an estimated City population of under 150,000 residents in 1995, to over 220,000 residents in 2008. (We'll have a better sense of population growth and change once the 2010 Census data are in.)

But that's not the only explanation. According to the Census, for instance, the City of Durham's population grew by 11.3% between 2000 and 2006.

One could expect crime to grow by the same levels, of course, arguing that crime levels should grow with population. Yet nominal crime levels didn't grow, or even just lag, they fell -- by almost 16% between 2000 and 2006, or by almost 18% between 2000 and 2005.

One can also wonder whether anyone's got their finger on the scale, trying to make figures look better than they are by how data are categorized -- or whether residents are just not reporting all crimes.

We can't answer the first question; it's worth noting that the FBI noted Durham's methodology for collecting data changed in a way to create challenges comparing 2006 data to previous years', and there's no data for 2007 in the FBI UCR reports.

But the decline is visible even in the 2005 data that's comparable to previous years.

To answer the second question, we looked at what percentage violent crimes comprised of the total crime reports -- on the theory that a crime-weary population might stop calling in thefts and other property crime before they'd fail to report a violent act to police.

Yet throughout the 14 year period in question, violent crimes averaged 12% of reported crimes, hovering between 11% and 14% throughout the study period.

That's not enough of a change to total level of change seen in crime reports throughout the period.

And while crime levels overall declined from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Durham's per-capita decline outpaces national average levels of decline in that category.

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The overall conclusion seems two-fold.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Durham's growth is bringing in a population that is, presumably, less likely to commit crimes and/or less likely to be victims of crime.

To some extent, that points to one of the virtues of Durham and Raleigh emerging as one of the pre-eminent destinations for relocation has served to bring in a greater level of residents by choice, who presumably are less likely to be haunted by the socioeconomic factors that can drive crime.

Comparing 1990 Census results for Durham County to 2000 ones, the percentage of the population with a bachelor's degree or better soared, from 33% to 40%. And although this doesn't account for inflation -- which was fairly moderate in the 1990s -- the percentage of households with household income over $75,000 soared from 8.4% in 1990 to 23.4% in 2000.

During that period, the number of Durham County households earning over $150,000 rose from 840 in 1990 to 3,799 in 2000.

Meanwhile, while poverty remained a pernicious problem in Durham, the number of families in poverty inched up just one percentage point, from 8.7% (1990) to 9.8% (2000), in spite of the overall rise in income inequality nationally.

None of this is to say that crime is or should be less of a concern -- or that it's a scourge that impacts only, or is caused only, by those who have the least in our society. 

Yet there is a strong and well-accepted linkage between economic success and crime levels -- something we've talked about in the context of needing to have jobs that reflect broadly the preparation and skills of the community as a whole, and something that's a risk as the community has lost its blue-collar and, more recently, high-tech manufacturing positions.

It's not all just economics. At the same time, there's been a real, nominal decline in the number of total reported crimes, suggesting at least some increased success at tackling crime by law enforcement officials.

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Of course, the perception of crime remains a real one in the community, even as the picture looks significantly brighter than it did a decade ago.

Which isn't to say that you're not going to hear the occasional comment from the shrinking number of people in neighboring communities who tell you they'll never go to Durham because of the crime.

Next time one of your friends from elsewhere makes a snarky comment like that, however, ask them if they felt safe in Raleigh at the turn of the century.

It's a valid question -- since Durham's crime index levels today are the same that Raleigh's were just a few years ago.

Of course, the data reported here, particularly given the missing 2007 data, don't show the full impact of Operation Bulls Eye, which created a disproportionate reduction in crime in the two-mile-radius target area in East Durham that became the focus for law enforcement overtime and special operations.

Even as crime numbers overall declined in Durham modestly since that late-2000s effort began, they fell much more rapidly in the Bulls Eye zone, which has certainly led to wondering about whether crime was displaced, or at least was picking up elsewhere as it was falling around Angier/Driver.

If that turns out to be the case, you could end up in a situation, at least in the short term, where neighborhoods that have received displaced or refocused criminal activity perceive themselves to be less safe, even as there's greater safety in the community as a whole.

Which means that this story is very much worth watching in the years to come.


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