JOHN HOOD COLUMN: Most communities have a crime problem

RALEIGH — In a recent column, I argued that cities would draw more investment and job creation to their downtowns if people felt safer in them. Because the only North Carolina cities included in the national study I cited were Charlotte and Raleigh, some readers concluded that I thought the problem was limited to those two jurisdictions.

John Hood

That’s not what I wrote — but I’ll take this opportunity to expand my argument.

First off, there are many other cities and towns with higher crime rates than those of Charlotte and Raleigh, including Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Asheville, Burlington, Statesville, Lumberton, Roxboro and Reidsville. The progressive group Carolina Forward has also observed that North Carolina’s rural counties experience some of the state’s worst crime rates.

Most of our communities exhibit a similar crime-rate pattern over time: a huge increase from the 1960s to the early 1990s, a significant drop through the mid-2010s, and a distressing rise in reported crime since then. Robust debate continues about causality, of course, but the very real human and economic costs of the mid-2010s reversal are impossible to deny.

In my earlier piece, I endorsed my John Locke Foundation colleague Jon Guze’s take on the available data: that increasing the number of police officers patrolling our communities would make them safer. Guze’s emphasis is on deterrence, not incapacitation. “Compared with catching and punishing offenders after they commit crimes,” he writes, “it is clearly better for everyone if potential offenders can be deterred from committing crimes in the first place.”

We should expand the ranks of law enforcement — but we should take other steps, as well. The UNC School of Government’s ncImpact Initiative, led by Anita Brown-Graham, has spotlighted two promising programs. In Robeson County, the Colors of Life initiative targets young people who may be tempted to join gangs. Employing ex-gang members and others as “violence interrupters,” the program trains at-risk youth on alternative ways of resolving disputes and redirects their energies towards more-constructive athletic, artistic and academic pursuits.

Another initiative worth replicating is Project SAFE Cabarrus. Launched by the county in cooperation with state and federal agencies, the project has identified the small number of repeat offenders responsible for a disproportionately large share of the crimes committed in Cabarrus County. By giving former inmates mentors, career counseling and access to key documents such as personal IDs, Project SAFE has, indeed, made Cabarrus communities safer.

In other words, policing and prevention aren’t alternatives. They are complements. Project SAFE helps repeat offenders “put down their guns and take advantage of help from community resources or face the consequences of law enforcement,” as ncImpact’s Charlie Chapman put it in a recent article.

I’ve also argued in the past for putting additional resources into North Carolina’s court system. Its new online platform is being piloted, though many bugs remain. We will also need more prosecutors, clerks, and support staff.

As argued in the earlier piece, the fact that our central business districts haven’t yet rebounded from the COVID downturn of 2020-21 can’t be fully attributed to public concerns about crime. The pandemic catalyzed a work-from-home movement that’s here to stay. More North Carolinians are telecommuting than ever before, at least for part of each workweek. Restaurants, retailers, real estate and other industries will have to adjust to the resulting changes in consumer demand.

There is no question, however, that perceptions about public safety influence decisions about where to work, shop, and invest. A 2021 paper in the journal Urban Studies found that an increase in crime on a given city block “was associated with a significant decrease in building permit activity the following year.” A 2022 study in the Journal of Urban Economics found that property and street crime, in particular, tends to discourage consumer spending at restaurants and entertainment venues.

Protecting the lives, liberty and property of its citizens is the first and foremost responsibility of government. It’s time to policymakers to focus their efforts on what we know will work.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member.