COLUMBIA — Violent crime was down in Columbia for the first half of 2008.
Reported incidents of assault are down the most, falling 53 percent compared to the first half of 2007. Reported sexual assaults are down as well, with seven reported cases through the first half of 2008, compared with 16 in 2007.
Although statistics suggest crime rates have tumbled, the subject remains a hot topic in Columbia.
"If there are multiple violent crimes, it can create an atmosphere of ‘What is going on?'" Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said.
But he credits police work like that of the Street Crimes Unit, which was activated on June 30, with helping chip away at violent crime. The goal of the unit is to specifically target "career criminals" and build cases against them.
"The street crimes unit is out there and publicized," he said. "One of (its) stated goals is to make life hard for career criminals and more serious criminals."
Reported incidents of robbery have also decreased, albeit by a lesser degree. There have been two fewer robberies in 2008 than in the first half of 2007.
However, Capt. Zim Schwartze of the Columbia Police Department said that crime statistics in 2007 were a bit of an anomaly.
"In 2007, I can tell you that we did see a temporary spike, so I am hopeful it will continue to decrease, but that compared to last year, we were experiencing a spike in certain crimes," she said.
Schwartze attributes that spike in part to the economy, unemployment, certain criminals in or out of jail and the time of year.
The public perception that violent crime is worse than ever in Columbia has prompted several community organizations to organize a Community Peace Rally Against Crime and Violence, which will be held Sept. 21.
The event begins at 3 p.m. with a pre-rally gathering at Douglass Park. From 4 to 5 p.m., participants will march to Boone County Courthouse, where the rally itself will take place. Participating organizations include the Youth Community Coalition, Imani Mission Center, Destiny of Hope, Community of Christ Church and First Ward Ambassadors.
Heather Windham, chairwoman for the Youth Community Coalition, said the exaggerated community response to violent crime is natural when victims are young. Three of the four people who died violently in Columbia this year were younger than 30. Cortez Johnson, who according to a probable cause statement was tortured before he was murdered, was only 2 when he died June 25.
"Any time a young person dies, especially brutally and unjustifiably, it has an impact on the community, and it should have an impact on the community," Windham said.
She also has personally felt the effects of crime since moving to Columbia three years ago, noting that there have been stabbings, shootings and physical and sexual assaults close to her home and work.
"I've lived in a lot of high-crime, large cities in my life, including Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles," she said. "And since I moved to Columbia, I personally have been impacted more by violent crime than I have in my entire life."
Contrasting declining violent crime, more Columbia citizens were affected by property crimes this year.
Schwartze said the state of the economy and unemployment rates have played a role in the increase in those crimes as well.
"Particularly for property crimes, when the economy starts going south and unemployment starts going up, we tend to be busier," Schwartze said. "People still need to feed their families and support their drug habits, and when they don't have a steady job to do that anymore, they tend to steal or burglarize."
Dresner emphasized locking and putting cars in garages and putting valuables away as ways to stem the property crime tide.
"If people think they can live in Columbia and not lock anything," he said, "they are wrong."