On balance, good news on crime

Mar. 08, 2014 @ 04:29 PM

Violent crime in Durham dropped measurably in 2013 over the previous year. That is certainly good news.

But the crime report that Police Chief Jose Lopez gave to the City Council Thursday came with a couple of downsides.  Homicides – the most terminal of violent crimes – were up more than 40 percent, to 30.

Rape, too, was up, but the police department’s report indicated a 40 percent increase in that crime was “in large part due to a change in the FBI reporting standards which went into effect in January 2013.” Had the same standards been in use, the numbers would have been about even.

For the first time since Lopez became chief in 2007, overall crime was up over the prior year.

The overall numbers were driven by a sharp rise in property crimes.  Those crimes –burglaries, larcenies and motor-vehicle thefts – were up nearly 6 percent. And those crimes are, in any event, far more numerous – thankfully – than homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults.

Nonetheless, the uptick in property crimes is likely to be more pervasively noticed, again just because of their greater volume. Fortunately, many residents will never come face-to-face with a violent confrontation – but are far more likely to have their home broken into or automobile stolen.

And one of the most significant victims of property crimes are businesses – nearly one in seven property crimes is a shoplifting offense. Even a casual scan of daily arrest reports can detect the pervasiveness – and one can only speculate on the number of shoplifting incidents that never result in detection and arrest.

The report makes no attempt to explain possible reasons for the upward trend in property crimes, but we doubt it would be off-base to suspect that the city’s relatively high incidence of poverty may be partly at issue.

Not for a moment does that suggest that poor people are prone to crime – nor to excuse robbery as a response to being poor. But when reports have necessities such as diapers showing up in shoplifting arrests, it’s not a stretch to believe that the parental dedication to caring for children might tempt one to push the edges of the law.

The depressing irony, of course, is that if desperation over an inability to provide for a family – or one’s self – leads to a crime and punishment, the ensuing record makes it even more difficult to find a job and eventual escape poverty.

But pondering those unanswerable questions shouldn’t detract from the larger picture of those crime numbers.

The violent crime decline means this is a safer city. And overall, the city’s crime rate has dropped almost 19 percent since 2007. Violence is down a tenth, property crime down a fifth.

The city is a safer place today than it was just a few years ago. That is something to celebrate.