When Newton County's fifth homicide for 2008 was reported last Sunday, some residents were left wondering if this represented an increasing and unsettling trend of homicide in Newton County.
Last year was an extraordinarily busy year for Newton County Sheriff's Office investigators as they handled an unprecedented slough of 10 homicide cases, compared to four homicides in 2006, one in 2005 and two in 2004.
This year is quickly shaping up to meet or possibly even exceed 2007's record, if things continue at the present pace. Within the first three months of 2008, Newton County already recorded five murders, including a case of double homicide. The city of Covington also had its first murder of the year in March.
In light of Newton County's growth in recent years, it can be difficult to gauge the significance of such numbers, as alarming as they might seem at face value. Is this partly a natural product of more people, and thus more conflicts, coming into the county? Are comparable neighboring counties experiencing the same trends? Are there any patterns or trends in the reasons behind the killings? In other words, should the average citizen be concerned?
Not so much, according to Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols.
"One thing I would like to stress is the homicides we've had are not the random killings, the type where someone just pulls up next to someone and shoots somebody," Nichols said. "The killings we've had have been known perpetrator homicides mostly."
Nichols also referred to the homicides as lifestyle homicides, such as people getting caught up in drugs and the wrong crowd. He added this term didn't necessarily describe the latest murder.
An analysis of data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Census population estimates, Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report and information provided by counties' sheriff's offices revealed causes for both reassurance and concern.
The good news is Newton County's murder rate generally decreased from 1990 to 2006, despite fluctuations, reflecting the downward trend in the state-wide murder rate.
Newton's rate peaked at 12.5 per 100,000 people (about 1 in 8,000) in 1994 and then abruptly bottomed at zero homicides for 1995. Newton's 2007 murder numbers, while an alarming increase, are still below its 1994 peak rate.
The state-wide rate peaked at 12.4 murders per 100,000 in 1991 and bottomed at 5.4 in 2004.
During this period, Newton's rate was also mostly below the state-wide average except in four out of the 17 years: 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2000.
The bad news is that Newton seems to be unique in the dramatic up-tick of homicides in 2007 compared to its neighboring counties, Rockdale, Walton and Henry, which has about twice the estimated population of Newton but a lower murder rate. This might not be unusual since the four counties' rates from 2000 to 2007 seem to compliment rather than parallel each other.
The violence seen in Newton might be reflective of crime seen in other metropolitan areas of Georgia. The state-wide rate was not yet available for 2007, but the FBI's preliminary 2007 Uniform Crime Report stated the number of murders in Atlanta increased almost 48 percent from 42 murders in 2006 to 62 murders in 2007. Overall violent crimes in Atlanta were reported to increase approximately 8 percent from 3,543 to 3,814 incidents from 2006 to 2007.
According to figures released by the NCSO, the total number of violent crimes against persons in Newton County, including homicide, rape, assault, and robbery, increased from a total of 67 incidents in 2004 to 332 in 2007. The greatest increase was in the number of assaults, which jumped from 12 to 263.
Drug cases handled by the criminal investigation department increased threefold from 31 cases in 2004 to 186 cases in 2007. Incidents of family violence increased from 416 in 2004 to 587 in 2006 before settling down to 419 last year.
"We're living in a violent time right now," said Nichols. "That's certainly reflected in Newton County."
As for what might be causing changes in crime rates, there are a plethora of studies, publications and speculations pointing to factors such as the economy, new laws and sentencing guidelines, the rate of abortions, incarceration, immigration and the rate of divorce as factors affecting the crime rate.
Alcovy Circuit Public Defender Anthony Carter said his office hadn't noticed any pattern in the recent influx of homicide cases.
Capt. Chris Cannon of the Walton County Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigation Division said he thought the mandated changes in handling domestic violence incidents have had an impact on homicide rates in Walton County.
"If you impact it right then, defuse the situation, make an arrest or obtain a temporary protective order, you're defusing the situation right then," said Cannon.
In Newton County, at least seven of the 17 homicide cases since 2006 have been domestic violence or family violence related, according to NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson.
Nichols, in reflecting on decades of seeing numbers fluctuate, said he wasn't telling people not to be alarmed, but that figures that rise or fall often level off after a few years.