2014 vs. 2013
(Rockdale Sheriff’s Office)
(27 in 2014 vs. 39 in 2013)
(100 in 2014 vs. 159 in 2013)
(380 in 2014 vs. 609 in 2013)
(1,320 in 2014 vs. 1,485 in 2013)
Motor Vehicle Thefts
(134 in 2014 vs. 165 in 2013)
(Conyers Police Department)
(26 in 2014 vs. 34 in 2013)
(74 in 2014 vs. 58 in 2013)
(115 in 2014 vs. 163 in 2013)
(719 in 2014 vs. 833 in 2013)
Motor Vehicle Thefts
(41 in 2014 vs. 52 in 2013)
The numbers say crime in Rockdale County has been on the decline for the last five years, with a large drop over the past year. Yet many people in the public Rockdale and Conyers have a hard time believing the reports and don’t feel it reflects what they perceive. What does this gap in public perception and on the ground activity mean for those on the front lines of law enforcement?
For the county, there was a 20 percent drop crimes classified as “Part I crimes” such as aggravated assaults, thefts, burglaries and robberies, from 2014 compared to 2013, according to the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office. Burglaries in the county were reduced to 380 incidents reported, significantly down from the 609 cases in 2013. Overall there were 1,976 Part I crimes in 2014 compared to the 2,467 of similar crimes that were reported in 2013.
In the city, the Conyers Police Department saw a similar but slightly less dramatic drop in Part I crimes, about 14 percent, from 2013 to 2014. The city saw burglaries down from 163 to 115 and overall down from 1156 in 2013 to 986 in 2014.
Yet in an informal man on the street survey of local residents and shoppers found most didn’t believe local crime had gone down and had a number of reasons why.
A Covington man who was shopping in Rockdale said, “I wouldn’t believe it. They’re opening up more Sheriff’s department (precincts) so crime went up. They had to justify opening up more Sheriff’s department (precincts).”
A Conyers mother with a daughter in middle school said, “I believe it’s going up. When you look at TV, you see a lot of killing. Everywhere you look there’s killing.” She added, after hearing the numbers, “You know for a fact that when they do those scale rates of up and down they never really tell the public the truth anyway because they don’t really want to scare anybody. Me honestly, I think it’s getting better, but I think we can do better.”
One Conyers man who’s lived in Rockdale for 14 years said he thought it might be going down. “Maybe down. I haven’t heard as many horrible type crimes maybe as I did last year.”
A Conyers young man said, upon hearing the reported rates, “Numbers are numbers. A lot of crimes are not caught.”
Are the numbers real?
There are some people who think the RCSO may be underreporting the number of crimes. RCSO Chief Deputy Scott Freeman said that this just isn’t true.
“I can assure you we are not cooking the books when it comes to (Uniform Crime Reporting),” he said. “We take great strides to make sure that’s done correctly.”
All crimes entered in to system go through an audit process with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state law enforcement officials.
Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson said if anything, the Conyers Police Department adheres to the stricter UCR standards than the state standards. “We’re audited by the (Georgia Crime Information Center). Of all the things they audited last year, they found one thing that they didn’t like,” said Wilson.
“When the feds or state does an audit of how we are classifying our crimes we always pass,” Freeman said, for the RCSO. “There is oversight into how we report those crimes. There’s a checks and balance system there.”
Perception vs. actual crime
Chief Deputy Freeman gives two reasons as to why the public may have a sense that there’s more crime happening around them.
The first reason is that crime rates have been on the rise for a number of years prior to 2013, the year the RCSO Sheriff Eric Levett took office. Although the rate has lowered over the last five years, crime rates today compared to the 1990s is significantly higher, said Freeman.
“I remember ten years ago when we had a carjacking or armed robbery, people were like, ‘We have that crime here in Conyers, Rockdale?’ It has changed considerably,” said Freeman. “The crime rates from when I started working the streets of Conyers are nowhere the same. It is considerable higher than what it was when I started in the early 90s.
“It used to be people were surprised that there were carjackings and home invasions. Those were the types of calls that were far and few between. It’s not so common that we have it every single day, but when you have those incidents, in the age of social media, that can spread very quickly.”
Wilson said many are holding on to a view of law enforcement’s role from another era. “You’ve got a lot of people who want to see it like it was years back, and only reason for law enforcement was to get a cat out of a tree. Those days are gone,” said Wilson.
So, for people who have been living in the area for ten or more years, they may have seen Rockdale take a turn for the worst in terms of crime and still apply those facts to today.
“When things start to change it takes a little bit of time for that message to go out,” said Freeman. “I think as law enforcement we’re really challenged in really overcoming a lot of obstacles.”
One of those obstacles is the stories and images the local television media broadcasts to Rockdale residents.
“When you turn on the television, you hear robbery, murder, people lured for car-jacking. It’s almost like people expect it,” said Wilson. He added that it’s the same in any city that has local television news.
The majority of the stories are about murders, shootings and other violent crimes, said Freeman, so it’s natural that people apply those types of crimes to this area.
“It’s the consistent barrage of what’s on the (TV) news at night. It’s human nature to apply that to where ever you may be living,” he said. “We’re not in denial that those crimes are here. The intensity is a lot less than when you get into the (DeKalb County) and the (city of Atlanta) and some of the other counties, but you still have that bleed over of perception and it’s difficult to overcome.”
Mark Warr, professor of Sociology at Unversity of Texas at Austin, has made studying this perception gap his life’s work and notes this is not a new phenomenon.
“When we ask Americans in surveys where they get most of their information about crime, the overwhelming answer they give are the mass media, particularly television. What is the single most prevalent topic of network dramas, televised movies, and local news coverage? Crime.”
But news coverage is greater on things that are unusual or rare. “The rarer crimes tend to be violent crimes which are the most newsworthy – but the public is presented with what I call a mirror-image or upside-down view of the world: what is truly rare is common on television, and what is truly common (in life) is rare (on television).”
Our brains often fall back on a shortcut to estimate how frequent or likely something is with how easily we can recall it, Ware explained.
“So if you ask me how common suicide is in my city and I can remember three news stories from just the last week, then I infer that it’s pretty common. Since crime is such a common news topic, people have little problem recalling numerous incidents of it.
In an article for the National Institute of Justice, Warr wrote, “What is seriously lacking in news reporting, and might be of greatest benefit to the public, is information about the risk of criminal victimization relative to other aversive or benchmark life events. To illustrate, what is the probability that I will be robbed this year compared with the chances that I will be involved in a serious automobile collision, eat contaminated food in a restaurant, contract an infectious disease at work or school, or suffer a heart attack?”
Overcoming the Gap
Wilson experienced this perception gap acutely during his time heading MARTA’s security.
“We could show time and time again that our crime rate was down and we were heck of a lot safer than the jurisdictions we were going through. Just didn’t matter,” said Wilson. “One sensational story comes out, that’s what they remember.”
Keeping the public’s trust and being available to answer questions are key, he said.
He continued, “It gets down sometimes that you fight actual crime and then you fight what people think. Sometimes you can get it close together and sometimes not.”
Over the last couple years, Conyers Police has decided to use this phenomenon to deter criminals.
When CPD realized a rash of incidents they were seeing at the end of 2013 were brought by the unsavory participants of prostitution activity – armed robbery, rape, being held at gunpoint – they knew they had to nip that in the bud.
In 2014, CPD planned a series of stings to attack prostitution and pandering. But, in doing so, the department also leveraged the power of sensational stories in the media to attack the criminals perceptions of Conyers. The CPD’s stated intent was to send a clear message to would-be prostitutes and johns to stay out Conyers.
And it worked. By mid-summer, investigators noticed a drop in online posting for prostitution activity in Conyers and undercover investigators had a hard time luring johns to the area.
Being in the public eye and in the television news is a double-edged sword, CPD Crime Analyst Kim Lucas acknowledges.
“I think we, Conyers Police, have been more in the public eye and in the news – social media, TV media – in the last two years than we ever have, bad or good,” said Lucas. When residents hear Coneyrs Police mentioned in television news, they take notice and might grow alarmed, she said. “But we’re doing things like the pandering stings and other things. Yes this is happening in the community but we’re making arrests and we’re not going to tolerate it.”
“It’s really an interesting dynamic… Not just the good folks hear it but the bad guys realize not to come here. You have a decrease in crime because the bad guys realize, ‘I’m not going to Conyers, they’re going to bust me there.’ But the good folk think, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all the crime going on.’”
Reasons for the crime rate decline
Using new technologies and patrolling areas more prone to crime over the past two years have helped the RCSO solve and prevent most crimes, said Freeman.
The LeadsOnline program, an online system that works with police across the country to track and recover stolen property, has helped solve a lot of thefts and burglaries cases.
“We have solved a number of burglary cases with that, and we would not have been able to solve those cases had we not had LeadsOnline,” Freeman said.
A predictive crime area analysis program launched last year has helped the department with knowing what areas of the county need the most patrolling.
Also, the RCSO has gotten better at doing the basics. Freeman said that the deputies have gotten with good at identifying prolific offender, processing evidence quickly and setting up perimeters to catch suspects who flee scenes.
“It’s a combination of investigation, allocation of resources,” he said. “Our patrol deputies are out here working the streets.”
Another big reason for the crime reduction has been the citizens, said Freeman.
“We can’t take all the credit for that. We have to give the citizens credit as well,” he said. “They have been instrumental in reporting crimes when it’s happening, usual or suspicious behavior. That said they have a lot of confidence in us to do the job.”
CPD Chief Wilson praised the good work of officers and detectives in a department that has been understaffed since October 2013.
“I can’t say enough for the work the officers and detectives have done. They have done just an excellent job. You never can put a number on what you prevented – you just don’t know. But the crimes that have been reported, they’ve been so good at making traffic stops based on something they saw on the bulletin.”
Wilson cited giving supervising officers the flexibility to create mini-task forces to address situations they see, such as a rash of car break-ins at hotels, as key.
That constant flow of information from lookouts and descriptions, enabled by advances in technology and sent out by other agencies over email and electronic communication, has been key to catching suspects.
Lucas said, “I think it’s at the best point now it’s been since I’ve been involved. We’ve established great relationships with the RCSO, city of Covington, Newton County; DeKalb…. We’re a member of so many different organizations, if I need to talk to someone in Columbus, I can put a face to a name. The flow of information has been really great. We’ve had so many cases span over jurisdictions.”
The latest developments in policing have been the discussions of body cameras and agencies being warned by the FBI to prepare for active shooter situations, said Wilson – both of which are expensive for local agencies to prepare for. He is waiting to see what the result will be of this year’s General Assembly session regarding body camera use.
The only two crime figures to go up in Rockdale County from 2013 were murder and rape incidents reported. There were three murder cases in 2014 - one more than 2013 - and there were 12 rape cases in 2014, five more than 2013.
“We’re not isolated. We’re not in a bubble, unfortunately,” said Freeman.