2018-01-10 / Featured / Front Page

As poverty spiked in the last decade, the crime rate dropped


PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF BLAND PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF BLAND Sitting inside the Eanes-Pittman Public Safety Training Center on a frigid Tuesday, dressed in uniforms of green, gray and blue, they came to welcome the new police chief.

On one side of the audience sat law enforcement representatives from nearby localities; across the aisle were Chesterfield’s Board of Supervisors and high-ranking officers of the Chesterfield County Police Department.

And on stage, wearing the county police force’s iconic hunter green uniform in public for the first time, was Jeffrey Katz. Sworn in by Timothy J. Hauler, chief judge of the 12th Judicial District of Virginia, Katz became only the eighth top cop in the department’s 104-year history.

Following Katz’ announcement that he was resigning from his previous post as police chief of Boynton Beach, Florida, a local TV station ran a news story stating that the crime rate had jumped 24.9 percent from 2014 to 2016 under his leadership.

Several years ago, Chesterfield’s police force transitioned from 9.5-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, which led to more manpower for longer periods on the road. 
ASH DANIEL Several years ago, Chesterfield’s police force transitioned from 9.5-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, which led to more manpower for longer periods on the road. ASH DANIEL Looking at 2007 to 2016 in Boynton Beach, total crime was at its lowest when Katz took the reins of the police department in 2013. During that 10-year period, overall crime fell by 13.7 percent, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Uniform Crime Reports. A broader look at the time period surrounding Katz’ tenure shows an interval in which crime slowly lowered, then began to rise again.

Katz said in an interview last week that it’s impossible to draw meaningful conclusions from three years of data while “looking at it in isolation, with no context whatsoever.” He took over a department that had been rocked by a number of high-profile scandals. He devoted a significant portion of his tenure to hiring and training quality people and turning around the department’s culture.

Despite a 110 percent increase in the number of people living in poverty from 2000 to 2015, Chesterfield has seen an overall decline in most major crime categories during the last decade. 
ASH DANIEL Despite a 110 percent increase in the number of people living in poverty from 2000 to 2015, Chesterfield has seen an overall decline in most major crime categories during the last decade. ASH DANIEL Katz’s time as chief also overlapped with a rapid increase in burglaries and other petty crimes related to the nationwide opioid epidemic, which hit South Florida particularly hard.

“Those numbers are not reflective of my leadership as chief,” he added. “I'm very proud of the work we did.”

Fair or not, the story illuminates the political impact crime statistics can have on the public’s view of crime and the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies.

Given the importance that crime stats seem to have on public opinion, the Observer did some digging into Chesterfield’s crime statistics from 2007 to 2016. As it turns out, Katz is inheriting a county in pretty good shape.

According to data from the Virginia State Police’s annual Crime in Virginia reports – which compile arrests made by local and state law enforcement agencies – Chesterfield experienced 4,934 crime incidents per 100,000 people in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available. That’s a 17.8 percent decrease from 2007, a year which saw 6,004 incidents per 100,000 people.

Among many categories of crime, the numbers are relatively down per capita, including murder, forcible rape, simple assault and burglary. Robbery, aggravated assault, arson and the joint destruction/ damage/vandalism category are way down per capita, some roughly half of their 2007 figures. (For a breakdown of the major crime categories, click here.)

These stats are all the more intriguing given that poverty has been on the rise in the county. From 2000 to 2015, the number of individuals living in poverty jumped from 11,586 to 24,285, according to the county’s demographic report, an increase of 110 percent. According to information from the U.S. Census’ 2016 American Community Survey, 7.4 percent of people in Chesterfield live below the poverty line.

Looking at Chesterfield’s crime statistics, Christina Mancini, associate professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, says Chesterfield seems to be following national trends.

“Generally, crimes have been going down,” she says. “There has not been this huge spike in crime, and a lot of cities have experienced a relative decline.” Nationwide, crime has been on the decline since the mid-1990s. After climbing from the 1960s onward and spiking with the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s, crime has plunged dramatically. As of 2016, violent crime in America dropped 66.3 percent from its peak in 1994, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

It’s worth noting that all of these figures only represent reported crime. The National Crime Victimization Survey, which randomly samples households across the country, contends that only 42 percent of violent crime is reported to the police. Any picture painted with crime stats alone is an incomplete one; the stats are only as good as the number of people who report them.

Locally, Chesterfield has seen overall declines in homicide, robbery, forcible rape and aggravated assault – the four categories used by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program to analyze violent crime – over the past decade.

It’s difficult to gauge much from the number of homicides – there were 10 in 2007 and nine in 2016 – and forcible rape peaked at 71 in 2007, dipped to 36 in 2011 and climbed back to 67 by 2016. In two of the larger categories, robbery and aggravated assault, there was a dramatic decline. Robberies dropped from 329 in 2007 to 196 in 2016, a 40 percent decrease. Aggravated assaults fell from 286 to 184 during the same period, a 36 percent drop. As for the overall downward trend, Mancini says there could be a number of factors at play.

While economic conditions can impact crime numbers, Mancini says crime stayed relatively low during the recent recession nationwide, though property offenses went up.

The age of a given population can also affect its crime rate, with analysts saying that the 15-to-24-year-old population is the most crime-prone age. As people age out of that demographic, they commit fewer crimes.

While former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani garnered a lot of press for cleaning up Manhattan with his zero tolerance policies in the 1990s, cracking down on less serious crimes like vandalism, some criminologists instead put emphasis on the aging of the city’s 15-to-24-year-old population during the citywide crime dip.

“You just had an aging of the population,” Mancini says. “You just had fewer people in that crime-prone age.”

In Chesterfield, though, the percentage of the population between the ages of 15 and 24 has remained stable, suggesting this isn’t the reason for decreasing crime. The county’s demographic report states that this age group made up 13 percent of Chesterfield’s population in 2000 and 2010; it’s projected to make up 13 percent in 2020 and 14 percent in 2030.

The rise in Chesterfield’s immigrant population may be helping the county’s crime rate. The county’s Hispanic community numbers more than 25,000, according to recent U.S. Census figures, making up 44 percent of the Richmond region’s Hispanic population. According to Mancini, both legal and illegal immigrants may not commit as many crimes as some might think.

“What some of the research is telling us is that because these folks have a vested interest in not getting involved with law enforcement, they generally don’t put themselves in risky situations, and they might have lower crime rates of offending than the native population,” she says. Immigrant populations also tend to report fewer crimes, research shows, and, according to advocates and law enforcement officials, President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdowns have had a chilling effect on immigrants reporting crime.

Major Frank Carpenter, criminal investigations bureau commander for CCPD, says the department has made efforts to reach out to the local Hispanic population, and must work to counter its concerns about law enforcement.

“Specifically with those community members, there’s a fear of the police, and that has a lot to do sometimes with exposure of police in different countries,” Carpenter says, adding that if a crime is reported, they don’t dwell on the person’s immigration status. “We treat them like community members, and if they have a crime, we take the report and we investigate it to the fullest.”

Policing strategies can also impact the crime rate. Roughly half a decade ago, Chesterfield’s police force transitioned from 9.5-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, which may help officers more effectively address crime.

“We have more manpower for a longer period of time on the road,” Carpenter explains. “When you’re dealing with specific beats that we have, you’re able to have those individuals in the area.”

At the same time, the department moved to what Carpenter calls a “platoon system”; instead of working with different colleagues on different days, the same crews of officers always work together.

“The dissemination of information is a lot crisper, because they know what’s going on, and when they’re off [duty], they’re all off duty at the same time,” Carpenter says. “It lends to a better relationship between the officers. In turn, they communicate better and share information better.”

As to how much the crime drop is attributable to operational changes, Carpenter says he doesn’t have figures to prove its impact, but can attest it has helped with communication.

“The type of service that we’ve been providing is still the same service, so I can only attribute the fact that the community is more aware, and our relationship and trust between the police department and the community has grown tremendously,” Carpenter says. “Just like anything else, it really depends on someone being in the right place at the right time.”

Carpenter notes that thefts from people leaving items in vehicles tend to drive the county’s crime numbers up, making them seem more substantial than they are.

“Larceny tends to be the bigger challenge with us here in Chesterfield County, and sometimes the larcenies include firearms, which is a really big deal for us,” he says.

While there are few murders, especially compared to Richmond, Carpenter notes that Chesterfield struggles with vehicular deaths.

“An old chief of mine told me, ‘It’s not a bad thing when your biggest concern is traffic violations.’”

If there’s a nearby locality to compare Chesterfield’s crime stats to, it’s Henrico.

Similar both in population size and standing as a suburb of Richmond, Henrico also saw declines in its crime rate over this period, from 6,314 incidents per 100,000 people to 5,260, a decrease of 16.7 percent. Informed of the statistics, Henrico Police Chief Humberto “Hum” Cardounel Jr. shies away from taking too much credit.

“Anytime you take credit for something when it’s good, you’ve also got to take credit for it when it doesn’t go in a positive direction,” Cardounel says.

It’s advice that Katz seems to be heeding as he steps into his role as Chesterfield’s new police chief. Asked about the downward trend of crime during the past 10 years and what it would look like going forward at his swearing in, Katz struck a note of caution.

“Nationwide, crime has really dropped this past decade. At some point in time, like anything else, there’s going to be a correction and an adjustment,” Katz says. “I hope that that doesn’t happen anytime soon, but as you have a growing population, you have more opportunity for crime.

“As Richmond becomes a more popular city, and a more affluent city, you are going to have some challenges that are going to come into Chesterfield, and some issues that we’re going to have to work with. But I look forward to working regionally on crime with other law enforcement departments. I hope that we are going to continue the downward trend, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect it another 10 years.” 

Correction: Due to an editing mistake, earlier print and online versions of this story miscalculated the percentage of the 10-year decline in robberies and aggravated assaults in Chesterfield. We regret the error.

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