July 6, 2018 11:02:43 AM
In January 2017, then Columbus Police Chief Oscar Lewis answered a reporter's question about the city's crime rate with a promise that violence was on the rise and that a biblical end-times prophesy was being fulfilled.
At the time, Columbus had just seen an unusually high number of murders (seven), and the city had a reputation of being a hotbed for crime. But statistics suggest 2016 was an anomaly and violent crime rates have decreased since.
According to statistics provided by Columbus Police Department, murder, aggravated assault, robberies and sexual assaults have all decreased since 2016.
"I think crime has leveled out," District Attorney Scott Colom said. "As far as I see, you'll see one year there'll be an increase in robberies but a decrease in burglaries. The next year, there'll be a decrease in larcenies but an increase in embezzlements. The one year where there seemed to be some really some significant crime was 2016."
Starting in 2012, the murder rate gradually increased, with one reported to CPD in 2012, two in 2013, three in 2014 and 2015 and peaking at seven in 2016. A year later, it decreased to two. So far in 2018 there has been one murder reported in Columbus.
Aggravated assaults have also decreased in the city during that time, with 86 in 2015, 63 in 2016 and 50 in 2017. CPD received reports of 25 aggravated assaults in the first five months of 2018.
In Starkville, statistics provided by the city's police department show violent crime has remained at marginal levels -- with the prominent exception of two murders SPD has investigated so far this year.
The numbers The Dispatch obtained reflect reported crimes in Columbus and Starkville city limits. They do not show crime reports in Lowndes or Oktibbeha counties outside of those cities.
Violence at public places
If a perception remains that violent crime is on the rise, particularly in Columbus, it's likely due the fact that Columbus' murders often happen in public, Colom said.
"As far as the perception goes, Columbus is unlucky in ... that some of the murders are high-profile based on the location. If you have a shooting at Cracker Barrel, that really hurts your perception of crime," Colom said, referencing a recent shooting at the Columbus location in which a suspect apparently entered the restaurant searching for his girlfriend and shot and injured an assistant manager. "Whereas if that would have happened in somebody's house, the idea that the city is unsafe would have been a lot less. But the fact that we had someone criminal enough to actually shoot someone else at Cracker Barrel -- they're accused of doing that at this point -- that really hurts our perception."
The Cracker Barrel shooting is far from the first in a high-profile public place in Columbus. A woman was shot and murdered outside Buffalo Wild Wings in 2014, and the Columbus-Lowndes Fairgrounds saw a fatal shooting in 2014 and a non-fatal shooting in 2016.
Last year, Columbus police didn't have a murder report until November. But it was outside the city-owned Trotter Convention Center on Fifth Street.
Those incidents, as well as the high homicide rate of 2016, still linger even for law enforcement, Colom said.
"The first murder last year was Thanksgiving Day in front of the Trotter," Colom said. "Before that, we had no murders the entire year. And I remember talking to people that are in law enforcement, and they didn't realize that. I was like, 'You know, we haven't had any murders this year.' They were like, 'What? Really?'...We were having such a lingering effect from 2016 in the high number of murders that year, that the perception trickled in. I think it's still affecting us today."
In Starkville, a city 25 miles west of Columbus and of similar size, the perception is different -- despite several high-profile violent crimes over the last couple of years, including a murder in the Cotton District in 2016 and a murder at Walmart earlier this year. In both those cases, authorities arrested suspects almost immediately, Colom said.
"I think compared to the historical trends of high crime peaks, both Columbus and Starkville are really safe cities," he said. "If you look at what crime was in the '90s -- if you actually dig deep and go back that far -- across the country there's been a decline in crime (since then)."
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the violent crime rate in the United States in 2017 was 386.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 1997, it was 611 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Nationally it doesn't always feel like that's the case. The rise in mass shootings in particular has caught attention, and that can affect how people view crime in their own area, Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton said.
"We have an educated community here in Columbus," he said. "We have people that attend (Mississippi University for Women) or Mississippi State. We have Air Force people, so people are aware of the world's views, and that can contribute to some of their ideas about what's happening in their own (community). Because if it's bad there, then it may be bad in my city as well."
Most violence 'domestic' in nature
Mass shootings haven't hit Columbus or Starkville. In fact, most violent crimes, even in peak years, occur between people who know each other, said Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols.
Nichols pointed out the two murders Starkville police have investigated this year were both domestic in nature.
"As far as aggravated assault, once again ... 90 percent of the time, they're going to know each other," Nichols said. "It's going to be some kind of domestic-related incident.
"We hardly ever find it where just a victim is assaulted with a weapon and doesn't know the suspect," he added. "It's pretty rare. They always have some kind of relationship or some kind of past."
That's also the case in Columbus, Colom said, though there are exceptions. He referenced a robbery downtown a couple of years ago where the victims didn't know the perpetrators. But for the most part, people don't find themselves at the mercy of a violent criminal they don't know.
"That's important because you don't want strangers and innocent bystanders to be unsafe in a city," Colom said. "That really hurts the reality and perception."
Shelton said he isn't too worried about the perception of Columbus. People may say the crime rate is high, but he doesn't see much evidence in the city that citizens are unusually fearful.
"People say Columbus has this amount of crime or that amount of crime, but what I gauge is, when I go out into the public ... I don't see a lot of people ... fearful of living their lives because of crime," he said. "That's my impression. I see people out and about. I see people eating dinner. I see people doing what they do to live."
He added an overall decrease in violent crime doesn't mean that some areas aren't still having problems. Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said there are still issues in East Columbus.
But since 2016, police have increased patrols, including foot patrols in problem areas and neighborhoods, Smith said. When people talk to him about crime in Columbus, that's often what they talk about, he said.
"The people that I've talked to, they don't think that crime is increasing," Smith said. "People tell me constantly that they're happy that we finally got our numbers up on the patrol.
"No matter what you do, you're always going to have naysayers," he added. "But ... yes, crime is decreasing."
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