Columbia started the new year with the stabbing of two men — one fatally — at a convenience store, the slaying of an MU microbiologist and the shooting of two police officers. Four home invasions, several muggings and incidents of gunshots fired into homes added to January’s flurry of crimes.
Behind the headlines and ongoing investigations are hard numbers that prove Columbia has never had so many homicides this early in the year. Within one month, Columbia’s homicide rate already surpassed the total homicides reported each year from 2002 to 2004, according to Missouri Uniform Crime Report data.
But one person’s crime wave can be another person’s statistical anomaly.
Sociologists say a crime wave requires the community’s increased perception of crime. Columbia police think there needs to be a connection between the crimes. Definitions and qualifications aside, some Columbia residents have become more fearful and taken greater precautions.
“It looks like there is a mini crime wave,” said John Galliher, an MU sociology professor with expertise in criminology. But statistics alone don’t define a crime wave.
Because a crime wave is defined as a political, social or cultural event, the public must perceive that crime is high or out of control, Galliher said. In fact, crime waves don’t need to involve actual crimes.
“There weren’t any witches in Salem, Mass., but that didn’t stop people from acting hysterically,” he said of the event sociologists consider America’s first crime wave.
Another reason not to classify the January events as a true crime wave is that city leadership did not interpret them as such.
“Just numbers don’t do it themselves,” Galliher said.
If, for example, the mayor and the police chief had called a press conference and urged the community to be vigilant, or to take extra precautions, their call would lend credence to the idea of a crime wave.
A spike, not a wave
Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said he doesn’t consider the recent crimes a crime wave because there is no connection between them.
“If we have an individual or a group of individuals that are committing a series of crimes over several weeks or months, then we would have a crime wave,” Boehm said.
Boehm didn’t say how many crimes would constitute a wave but said it would have to be higher than the average.
“I would also consider it a crime wave if a method kept being used — such as home invasions ending with homicides,” Boehm said.
He added that despite the public’s perception that the amount of crime is increasing, it has actually been decreasing during the last two years.
The high profile of the crimes increased media attention, which in turn heightened the public’s perception, Boehm said. He conceded it was unusual to have three homicides in one month, especially when they were not connected.
“We are a growing city, and with this growth there is an increased opportunity to become a victim,” Boehm said.
Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman agrees. As any city grows, there will be an increase in crime and this does not constitute a wave, he said.
“Crimes don’t happen even keel,” Hindman said. “They bunch up and then don’t happen for a long period of time.”
Increase or not, people are talking about what is happening.
“When people are talking about what is happening to Columbia, they are talking about what is happening to the community,” said Mark Pioli, a MU sociology professor.
Last month, residents met to discuss the recent crimes and the tsunami at the city-sponsored forum, A Community Circle, said Nannette Ward, the forum’s coordinator.
“We know crimes happen in communities all the time, and so many happened in a short amount of time and in a small city that it was a little bit harder to process” said Ward, also the city’s community educator and human rights investigator.
She said the crimes have particular relevance to residents, since a cross-section of the community was involved in and affected by them.
Columbia resident Brian Page, who attended the forum, said he noticed a trend in the last several years.
“I would say there is more crime since we moved in 1985, and the violent crimes have escalated,” Page said.
Page thinks increased use of drugs, such as methamphetamine, has spurred more violent crimes in Columbia.
Random and bizarre
Raising the public’s anxiety are random and bizarre crimes such as the murder of Columbia Daily Tribune Sports Editor Kent Heitholt in 2001 and the recent killing of Jeong Im, an MU microbiologist, in the Maryland Avenue Parking Structure, Pioli said.
“These bizarre crimes are not just ‘boyfriend murders girlfriend,’ but something more random, which is more chilling,” Pioli said.
Randomness is what made the Washington-area sniper shootings so terrifying. There was no clear reason why certain people were targeted.
“It makes people afraid to leave their homes,” Pioli said.
To assure themselves, people can try to reason why a victim was targeted. This sense of security is lost when no reason can be found in the crime.
The crimes that happened in Columbia in January, with the exception of the slaying of Im, in which the motive and killer remain unknown, do not appear to be random, Pioli said.
Columbia police Capt. Michael Martin said people can blame the crime on outside forces from Kansas City or St. Louis, but he doesn’t think anyone comes to Columbia with the intent to commit a crime.
Although he understands people are fearful right now because of recent events, Martin said he thinks Columbia is a safe place to live.
“Our response is that we don’t think there is a reason to fear becoming a victim,” he said.
By being cognizant of their surroundings, residents can avoid becoming a victim, he said.
“People are still in small-town mentality,” Martin added. “They should behave like they would in St. Louis.”
Columbia resident Peg Craig said the recent home invasions spurred her to change her behavior.
“I hadn’t worried about keeping my door locked before then,” Craig said. “Now I do.”
Feeling more vulnerable
Whether people’s fear is of the unknown lurking hoodlum or a gang of thieves in masks, that fear can be bad for their health, Pioli said.
This sense of fear might be the reason for the increase in calls made to the Mid-Missouri Crisis Line in January, said John Wilkerson, volunteer coordinator. The crisis line received 30 calls more in January than it did in the same month last year, he said.
“Whenever these issues of safety or comfort are threatened, equilibrium can be affected,” Wilkerson said.
Page said he felt a mixture of fear and anger after learning of the recent crimes.
“I was angry with the perpetrators and also angry at having to make changes in my behavior as a result of the added risk,” Page said.
He said he has not frequented ATMs at night since the flurry of crimes.
Raeona Nichols, a psychologist with the MU Counseling Center, said tragedies in the community can stir up the emotions of students who know someone involved with the crime or have dealt with similar circumstances in the past.
“When there have been a series of crimes in the community, it puts everyone on guard,” Nichols said. “The main thing I think is that it increases peoples’ vigilance and awareness of their surroundings.”
Sometimes the increased awareness leads people to attempt to increase their security or check their security systems’ efficiency.
“We have had more customers wanting to test their system,” said David Watkinson, owner of Dyna Electronic Security Inc. Wayne Hudson, owner of Central Security Systems, estimated that his company received double the number of calls in January, and they were directly related to crime in Columbia.
“If you were a professional burglar, where would it be safer to practice your trade? Kansas City or Columbia?” said Hudson. He said Columbia is a “sitting duck” for crime because many residents think they don’t have to take preventive measures.
“We are becoming a city with city issues,” Martin said. “We are not just a quiet Missouri community anymore.”