Communities that are the most effective at fighting crime and preventing the conditions that lead to crime are the communities where law enforcement doesn’t tackle the issue alone. Successful communities have multiple organizations, businesses and individuals working together to seek collaborative solutions and offer their help.
That’s one of the reasons the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce included crime in its 2015 Focus Areas. Crime is a business issue from the perspective of keeping your company, property and employees safe. It’s also a quality of life issue. We want to keep our families safe and not have to worry about our homes being burglarized or our cars stolen.
But there is a larger, overarching issue for business: crime affects economic development. An area’s crime rate is a prime consideration for relocating businesses and startups. It could be the reason that the next GE or PPD decides to locate elsewhere. Or even one of the reasons why a business may choose to leave Wilmington.
The issue is exacerbated when high-profile crimes occur. The media, understandably, do stories about shootings and murders. We’ve seen it occur recently in Wilmington with reports of gang activity and deaths. And those high-profile crimes paint an unflattering and often misleading picture of crime in a community.
Chamber First Vice Chair Mitch Lamm, who also serves as chairman of our crime committee, recently wrote an op-ed that does an excellent job conveying the perception of crime in Wilmington versus the reality, and how that difference can affect our community negatively:
If I asked you whether crime in Wilmington has increased or decreased, what would your answer be? My gut tells me that you’d respond that it has increased. That had been my feeling as well until recently. With the considerable media coverage that high profile crimes have received over the past year, Wilmington has been painted to look more like the Wild West than a beautiful port city with an enviable quality of life.
Most would be surprised to learn that the statistics tell a different story. The city of Wilmington has experienced historic lows in non-violent crime. While violent crime saw a small uptick last year, overall crime in the city of Wilmington has decreased substantially. Between 2002 and 2014, there has been a 33 percent reduction in crime, while population has increased by nearly one-third. In 2014, “Part 1 Crime” (defined by the State Bureau of Investigations to include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson) saw another reduction of 6 percent. This set a new record low since 1993, based on internal Wilmington Police Department Uniform Crime Reporting statistics from 1993 to 2014. The audited numbers from the SBI should confirm these reductions later this fall when they are released. (Current reductions as reported by the SBI from 2008 to 2013 can be seen at www.ncdps.gov.)
Consider this as well: while violent crime increased last year by 7 percent, it is still down 26 percent since 2002. The uptick in violent crime last year was due in part to retaliatory violence by gang members. Most of the victims knew those who had perpetrated the violence. Evidence of this is seen in the percentage of violent crime victims who refused to cooperate with police. Last year, 42 percent refused to cooperate, up drastically from 27 percent in 2013.
Does that mean that our perceptions about crime in Wilmington are skewed? Perhaps. The guiding tenet for the media remains: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Headlines tout shootings and homicides. These crimes should be reported and it’s understandable why they make the front page or the lead story on the evening news. They affect our community, continue an important conversation regarding safety, and help provide readership and viewers for news outlets. I would never suggest that we diminish the importance of this reporting. That reality, however, often eclipses the chance for positive stories about the incredible work being done by the Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
The changing face of crime downtown – where crime rates have historically been the highest – is a perfect example. Wilmington’s Central Business District (from Castle Street to Nutt Street and the Cape Fear River to 3rd Street) has seen historic lows. In 2014 the area had the fewest Part 1 crimes in 13 years (down 14 percent). From 2002 to 2014, there has been a 50 percent drop in crime in the Central Business District, which equates to 224 fewer crimes. The Downtown Business District (from Castle to Nutt and the river to 5th Street) has seen similar improvement. Part I crime was down by 9 percent in 2014.
As is the case in most cities, public housing has historically been a hot spot for crime. Yet last year Wilmington’s public housing crime numbers dropped significantly as well: violent crime in public housing dropped 18 percent, property crime dropped 35 percent, and overall Part 1 crime fell 30 percent.
These remarkable stats haven’t received the recognition from the media or the general public that they deserve. When I was elected to be a member of the executive committee of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, I chose crime as my focus area and now serve as the 2015 chair for our crime committee. I admit that I was critical of the police department, mainly due to crime hitting close to home for me personally and because of the barrage of negative stories I’d seen in the media. After meeting with Chief (Ralph) Evangelous, Sheriff (Ed) McMahon and others on the frontlines, I have a much more comprehensive view of the issues, the progress that has been made, and probably most importantly, the challenges faced by officers. I’m impressed with the ways the department constantly evolves to find new and better tactics to deter crime, and the partnerships they have established to influence at-risk youth and deter them from becoming involved in gangs.
As a community, we must look beyond the negative headlines and recognize the positive work being done to combat crime and the results that have been achieved. We should promote the good news as well, so that others looking to visit, move or establish a business in Wilmington have a truer picture of our community, not just what they’ve seen in the headlines that could deter them from coming here. The Chamber will be working harder in this regard, and it’s my hope that the next time I ask the question about the state of crime in Wilmington, the response will be based on facts, not perception.
- Mitch Lamm
First Vice Chair
Wilmington Chamber of Commerce
With dedicated volunteers like Mitch doing their part to have a positive influence on crime, we are making inroads into this issue. Chamber leadership has held meetings with Police Chief Ralph Evangelous, Sheriff Ed McMahon, District Attorney Ben David and others to discuss strategies. The Chamber board recently passed a resolution supporting staffing recommendations in the 2014 WPD Patrol Staff Study that calls for increasing staffing levels at the WPD by 26 new officers and eight detectives.
I continue to serve on the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence, and was pleased the Chamber and the Chamber Foundation took a lead role in funding one of its initiatives last year: the creation of the Youth Enrichment Zone Summer Initiative. That program took at-risk youth off the streets, combated summer break learning loss, and, ultimately, helped deter youth from becoming involved in criminal activity. The Chamber, Wilmington Chamber Foundation and Cape Fear Future (CFF) raised more than 60 percent of the $75,000 needed to launch that program. CFF also donated $16,500 to help continue the program this summer.
From lower crime rates to innovative new programs, progress is being made on the issue of crime. I encourage you to look beyond the headlines, help us spread the positive news, and encourage law enforcement by giving them the credit they deserve for making our community a safer place to live and work.
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the largest membership-based business association in Southeastern North Carolina. The Chamber’s mission is to ensure economic prosperity throughout our region. This is accomplished by: creating a diverse, inclusive organization that serves as a strong voice for businesses in the Greater Wilmington area; offering unique membership benefits, services and education; and challenging government officials to address long term community and business interests.
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