What the numbers say

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on Crime and Safety in Selma.

By george l. jones

The Selma Times-Journal

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The perception of violent crime in Selma has become increasingly negative in recent years.

Murders, robberies and assaults to citizens have forced some to question the safety of the city.

More importantly, they wonder what law enforcement and elected officials will do about it.

The common denominator when comparing crime rates usually seems to be industry.

According to a 2003 FBI report and a separate study of incomes in Alabama, cities in counties with high per capita incomes tend to have lower crime statistics.

Huntsville had a violent crime rate of 6.1 occurrences per 1,000 people. The city is located in Madison County, which has the second-highest per capita income in the state at more than $23,000.

Montgomery (Montgomery County, $19,000) had a rate of 6.5. Birmingham (Jefferson County, $21,000) was one of the few variants of the trend with a rate of 13.9.

By comparison, Marion – located in a county in the bottom five in per capita income (Perry, $11,000) – had a rate of 12.1 violent crimes per 1,000 people. Selma (Dallas, $14,000) had a rate of 20.8.

Dallas County also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at 7.8 percent.

“Obviously, when someone doesn’t have a job, he’s going to be more tempted to commit a crime if life gets pretty hard,” said District Attorney Michael Jackson. “The biggest problem in Dallas County is that the crimes are drug-related. The crime rates (in recent years) have been increasingly lower in burglary and theft, though. People are less likely to steal if they have money, but that still can’t be an excuse.”

Unemployment in Dallas County has dropped more than three percent in the past three years. According to Jackson, the rise in available jobs is a likely reason for the drop in crime.

“The murder rate has dropped dramatically over the last year,” Jackson said. “The violent crime has dropped down. When the crime rate is down, businesses tend to come here. We have had some businesses in the last year or so locate here.”

There have been proactive efforts to help strengthen the economic status of the county.

Through the efforts of the Selma and Dallas County Economic Development Authority and the Centre for Commerce, new industry has made its way to the city.

“We’ve formed something called Team Selma,” said EDA president Wayne Vardaman. “We have a group of people sitting at a table thinking of ways to bring business to the city. Then we go out and work to make that happen. We’ve had some good successes. We’ve also had some misses. You have to keep on top of it, though. If you get one new business in here, you can’t just sit around because another opportunity will pass you by.

“As we build the industry base, the saying ‘If you build it, they will come’ comes to mind. It usually takes 200 jobs to move the (unemployment) needle one percent.”

Selma Mayor James Perkins said lack of jobs and drug-related activity are no longer crutches to stand on.

Selma is not only looking out for the financial prosperity of the city and the county, it is also providing more avenues for the betterment of its people.

“(The lack of) jobs is no longer an excuse for these people committing crime,” Perkins said. “We’ve created 1,100 new jobs here in the last year and a half. We’ve got free training at Wallace-Selma for anyone that wants to get a job. There is also free drug rehab. We’ve got some other social issues we have to address.”

Where Selma stands

Whether or not the crime rate in Selma is totally out of hand is still a debatable issue.

Although the crime rates may appear staggering, there is not a lot of disparity when compared to other cities of similar size.

According to the FBI report, Selma’s overall violent crime rate was 3.5 times the national average. Aggravated assault happened at a rate 3.8 times the national average. Forcible rape was 4.7 times the national average, and burglary was nearly four times the national average.

Anniston, with a current population of 24,276, had a violent crime rate 3.5 times the national average. Burglary was 4.6 times the average.

Opelika’s (23,498) violent crime was 2.6 times the national average.

Instances of rape in Prattville (25,949) happened almost twice as much as anywhere else in the country.

“I think when you look into it on an individual basis, the citizens in a community are going to feel their situation is the worst,” Perkins said. “It takes those people that are taking action and that are trying to create solutions to put things into perspective.”

The recent creation of a crime task force and Perkins’ call for a town hall meeting to discuss crime are nothing new to the city.

Perkins said the emphasis on same type of community involvement in 2004 led to a dramatic reduction in crime rates. Citizens were asked to give their recommendations on how crime in the city could be reduced within 30 days of the meeting’s adjournment. This time around, however, Perkins said the city and law enforcement leaders would be more realistic in their anticipation of the public’s response.

He also believes the success then would be duplicated – this time with a better understanding of how to create solutions.

“When you have people participating in public safety, then you’re going to have a reduction in violent crime,” Perkins said. “In my judgment, it was the crime task force that made the difference. The citizens – not law enforcement, not politicians. They’re going to tell us what their priorities are. When we did that, we saw a 40 percent reduction in murders.

“I see the same thing happening here.”

Both reactive and proactive actions are being taken to make sure crime in the city does not become a problem too big for local law enforcement to control.

“In the process of setting up the drug task force, we’re also setting up programs with other agencies,” Jackson said. “There are community corrections programs and programs to help people get off drugs. Our office has taken a hard line on crime because crime does affect the quality of life in our community.”