New Bern, NC – Across the country and in North Carolina, crime rates have started to improve. In 2011, the US as a whole experienced a decrease of 4.0 percent in the number of violent crimes when compared with numbers from the year before; and property crimes showed a decrease of nearly one percent. North Carolina has also seen a nearly paralleled improvement. According to the North Carolina Department of Justice's Annual Summary Report of 2011 Uniform Crime Reporting Data released earlier this month, the crime rate is North Carolina's lowest since 1977. Violent crime fell by more than 5 percent in North Carolina while property crime decreased by a half a percent.
Many counties in eastern North Carolina fell below the state's average index crime rate of 3,919.8. However, Dare, Lenoir, Edgecombe, Wayne, Craven, Pitt, and Carteret county's index crime rates were higher than the state average- in that order. Even though Lenoir County is at the top of the list - nearly 23 percent higher than the state average - Director of Public Safety for the City of Kinston Bill Johnson says those rates have shown a decline in the first half of 2012.
"In the violent crime categories, for instance in 2011 we wound up with 10 murders that year. The first six months of 2012, we haven't had any. Incidence such as rape, if you look at the statistics that we have- lets say 2011, six month period- we had six. This year, we've had seven. So the violent crimes are trending down except for the aggravated assault type incidences they have increased over the first six months of this year, over what they were last year.
Statistics from the Annual Summary Report are based on data provided by local law enforcement agencies across the state and do not include crime rates for municipalities, but for counties. Johnson says the city of Kinston has its own in-house statistician that tracks incidences for six-month and 12 month periods.
According to the figures for 2011, violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault increased in Kinston. Both violent crime and property crime increased by 17 percent in 2011. There were 262 cases of violent crime and 1,437 cases of property crime.
Many factors play into the high crime rates recorded in 2011, such as the weak economy and Kinston's poverty level, which is more than double the state's average. Johnson says the area also has a gang problem.
"Of course there are well known ones, the Bloods and the Crips. We have one that's called Money World, we have those who are called 5 Percenters. A lot of them can be people that live on the same block."
It's not just gang members, people who commit crimes are all over the board. Johnson says they are reaching out to rehabilitate individuals who commit non-violent crimes through a new campaign called "Crossing Boundaries."
"last year when we had that really challenging year, I sat down and decided that we would have to do some things differently. "
The initiative targets primarily young people and repeat offenders and gives them a chance to change. After being caught for a minor crime, Johnson says they don't immediately arrest the individual.
"we send them a letter and tell them that we are having a meeting at this location. Now, you are not required to attend the meeting. However, the purpose of the meeting is to bring you in, speak with you. We want this to stop. It has to stop. Come in and talk to us, we will offer you some alternatives to what you're doing."
The purpose of the "Crossing Boundaries" campaign is to connect young people with officials from the Employment Security Commission, Public Health, and Lenoir Community College, among others.
"we bring a lot of resources to the table that if that person wishes to avail themselves to it, to try to get themselves turned around, and hopefully headed towards becoming employed and productive citizens of the community. If they opt not to do that, then the next day we go out and arrest."
By participation standards, the Crossing Boundaries program is successful. Last week, police were able to remove 17 criminals from Kinston, six of which were gang members. Johnson says the initiative makes Kinston a safer place to live.
"We targeted these people and built up evidence on these people we made arrest, but we did not take them on state charges, we took them on federal charges. Because I believe that when people have chosen to go down a road, go down a direction, and they do not choose to stop being an issue to the community or a danger to the community, there are times when the only alternative is to remove them from the community."
The Crossing Boundaries initiative is just one way officials are cracking down on illegal activity. Police are also stepping up investigations. A recent uptick of crime in Kinston that included an armed robbery at Walgreens, an arson case that destroyed three businesses in the downtown area, and a shooting which sent one man to the hospital, and were all solved within a week. Kinston Public Safety has also holds gun safety classes and will begin a gang prevention program in schools in the coming year. The measures seem to be working. Local crime statistics reported by the city show murder, rape, and robbery crimes in the first half of 2012 have decreased-compared to the first six months of 2011. Johnson says another factor driving downward crime rate is the recent influx of job creating businesses moving into the area, including Sanderson Farms, Spirit AeroSystems and an extension of Smithfield Packing.
"Fortunately, one of the things that is going to help, and we're seeing it already, is that there is a 44 percent job increase for people in the city of Kinston".
In addition to new jobs, community involvement has helped Kinston Police net seven individuals by providing information that lead to an arrest. Similar to the Crossing Boarders program which seeks to provide opportunities for people to change, non-profits in Kinston have contributed to helping to lower the crime rate in 2012.
"The services that we bring are one or two dimensions. But as far as the desire to rehabilitate, that has to be done in a vast partnership. And Common Ground is a part of that. "
Common Ground is a non-profit in Lenoir County that gives young people an alternative to crime and educates them about healthy and sustainable eating habits. We will talk about their efforts- later during the show.