Crime neutralized as campaign issue

New tactics and more officers have resulted in consistent drops in crime.
Monday, November 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:28 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, according to the FBI, the number of violent crimes in the United States increased 34 percent. In response to public fears, Congress, in 1994, passed several major anti-crime bills that, among other things, put more police officers on the street and encouraged greater cooperation between law enforcement agencies and communities.

During the last decade, however, crime has steadily decreased, reaching a 30-year low in 2003. As a result, crime as a political issue has almost disappeared. The war in Iraq, the economy, jobs, health care and perhaps even stem cell research will have greater influence on the decisions of voters in Tuesday’s election than crime.

The annual FBI Crime Report, released last week, found that in the past decade, murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault have declined more than 25 percent. In Columbia, while assault and burglary have increased modestly, homicide, rape and property crime are all down by as much as 89 percent from 2000. Police and other experts say the decrease in crime is a result of several factors, including an increase in police officers, an aging male population, longer prison sentences and new law enforcement strategies, such as community policing.

Since he became Columbia’s chief of police in 1999, Randy Boehm has hired 17 new officers to keep up with the growing geographic area of Columbia and the increase in population, both of which have put more pressure on the department.

“A steady increase in the number of calls doesn’t necessarily mean that there has been an increase in crime,” he said. “A lot of times, we respond to car accidents, fires and other non-crime-related incidents.”

MU law professor Steve Easton thinks the decrease in crime is due to the decline of the young male population.

“Males age 15-35 are the dominant crime-producing population,” he said. “Our population is now aging a bit.”

The 2000 census reported that, as a percentage of the total male population, young men have decreased steadily. In 1980, men between the ages of 15 and 34 accounted for 36.2 percent of the male population. In 2000, that percentage had decreased to 29.1 percent.

Another important factor in reducing crime has been a change in sentencing. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Easton said, judges were handing down longer prison sentences for all kinds of crimes. That has kept people who may be more likely to commit crimes off the streets.

“If sentences were shorter, criminals would have more access to crime, and the number of repeat offenders on the streets would increase,” Easton said.

Columbia police Sgt. Danny Grant said a more cooperative relationship between the police and the community also helps explain the decrease in crime. In 1997, the Columbia Police Department began actively reaching out to

residents — a strategy known as community policing — to help curb crime and tackle recurring law enforcement problems.

“Opening yourself up to the public and asking for help is when the department is most successful,” Grant said.

Boehm cites the city’s Neighborhood Watch program as a particularly effective form of community policing. Richard Poelling, president of the Neighborhood Watch board of directors, said the local program began in 1975 and has grown to about 480 groups, ranging in size from one member to 30. The program hosts revitalization meetings every other month that concentrate on specific police beats.

Poelling, a longtime resident of Columbia, says that over the years, Neighborhood Watch has helped reduce the number of burglaries and larcenies.

“In 1979, there were about 1,500 burglaries,” he said. “In 2003, it was around 450.”

Anne Westfall, a member of the Neighborhood Watch board, said revitalization meetings encourage members to be alert and to report suspicious activity to the police. Westfall has lived in the area for over 30 years, and though the city has grown steadily, she still believes Columbia is very safe.

“The more people you have involved, the more eyes you have to look for out-of-the-ordinary behavior,” she said.

In the next couple of months, Columbia police plan to bring back the Fourth Squad, a six- to seven-officer beat that will be concentrated in Beat 50, the near-downtown area that generates the most police calls. More than 20 percent of the arrests made in Columbia occur in Beat 50, which is patrolled by nine officers.

“I look at how much work officers have to do,” said West District Capt. Marvin McCrary. “The number of calls we respond to is still high.”

Still, crime here and around the country has decreased to the extent where this year’s presidential candidates aren’t even talking about it. MU political science professor Richard Hardy said that the candidates typically take their cues from the public and that right now crime is a low priority for people who are more concerned about Iraq, jobs and the economy.

“It’s just not on the radar screen right now,” he said. “It probably will be in the future as issues recycle.”

That’s completely different from the 1988 election, said MU sociology professor John Galliher. Back then, the debates between candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush were dominated by the alarming increase in crime being reported.

Today, Galliher said, “I guess we have bigger fish to fry.”

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