College Park worst for crime, FBI stats say

Crime continued to drop almost everywhere in metro Atlanta, matching a three-year national trend, but College Park couldn't shake its unwanted label as statistically the region's most unsafe community while Peachtree City appeared to be the safest.

Those were the findings of the FBI's 2009 Uniformed Crime Report released Monday. With crime touching nearly everyone these days, city leaders, law enforcement and business and home owners each year closely examine these numbers.

Overall, metro Atlanta appeared to be doing a better job of crime-fighting than similar sized regions elsewhere in the country, according to Volkan Topalli, associate professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

“[The region’s] crime rate has gone down and at a slightly better clip than other cities that are a lot more distressed than we are,” Topalli said.

The FBI data is collected annually from police and sheriff's departments and tracks how crime affects cities nationwide, in particular through violent and property offenses. In order to compare different sized cities, crime is measured by per capita numbers in relation to populations of 10,000.

College Park, a city of 19,936 that borders Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, repeated as No. 1 in metro Atlanta in the three main rankings: violent, property and total crime. It averaged 1,178 crimes per 10,000 people in 2009. East Point was next, at 870 crimes per 10,000. Atlanta, with 10 times more population than most of its surrounding cities, had 734 crimes per 10,000 people.

Peachtree City, however, counted just 188 crimes per 10,000, with Kennesaw (193), Powder Springs (255), Milton (265) and Roswell (284) similarly unaffected.

College Park, sitting in the shadow of Atlanta, has been one of the region's hardest-hit areas for housing foreclosures and has a large homeless population, contributing to its perceived lawlessness.

"I don't think it is a safe place to live," said Charles Winkler, whose niece was murdered last year with her roommate, shot execution-style in their College Park apartment.

"People can remember little girls walking to an evening show, and you wouldn't dare walk the streets now," said Jeff Sunnergren, owner of a College Park print plate-making business. "You're going to be in for a shock."

College Park police Capt. Ron Fears hadn’t seen the latest FBI report when contacted Monday, but said the city's problems stem more from petty crime, such as motor vehicle theft in the hotel district, even though it continues to rank as the region's most violent city per capita.

“Our citizens feel pretty safe and we feel pretty good about the job we’re doing out here,” Fears said. “I don’t think the numbers deal with reality. We’re nowhere near the bigger cities. We feel like we have a safe city.”

For the most part, cities in Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Forsyth and Clayton counties have experienced decreases in crimes reported from 2008 to 2009. Forest Park, Jonesboro, Decatur and Snellville experienced slight increases in violent crime. Duluth, Acworth, Kennesaw, Norcross and Lawrenceville had small increases in Property crime.

Crime appears to be shifting from the Atlanta to smaller communities such as College Park and East Point because of the end of public housing, with offenders re-establishing their territories in other smaller venues that tend to have small police forces, according to GSU's Topalli.

"They’re not going to stop doing crime just because you removed their housing,” Topalli said.

East Point Police spokesman Sgt. Cliff Chandler wouldn't comment on the report, which had his city jumping from fourth to second in the overall metro Atlanta crime rankings, until he had a chance to analyze it.

However, Rev. Robby Jackson of Jefferson Avenue Baptist Church said towns like College Park and East Point get all the blame when other factors are in play.

“There have been some property crimes; there have been some doors kicked in and TVs removed,” said Jackson, whose East Point church installed  a security system a few years ago after a series of break-ins. “More than likely I would attribute it to the usual suspects: the economy and people being opportunistic. This has been a fairly quiet neighborhood. It seems that the south side of Atlanta gets a bad rap.”

Jonesboro showed the biggest improvement among metro Atlanta cities in the FBI crime report -- it went from seventh in 2008 to out of the top 10. New Jonesboro Police Chief Franklin Allen, on the job for just five weeks after leaving Grantville, credited his 24-officer department with being more proactive in its approach. He said violent crime is down while acknowledging that property crime likely has remained the same.

“An effort has been made to concentrate on the nuisance crime first,” Allen said. “To eliminate the nuisance crime first will eliminate more serious crime later.”

Topalli said the latest positive FBI data, extending a three-year trend, is the result of more aggressive policing in communities, the country’s higher rate of incarceration, programs aimed at reducing gang activity and youth crime, and an aging U.S. population less prone to criminal activity; the median age is 36.7, whereas in 1990 it was 32.9.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner returned from a triple shooting with one fatality Monday, pushing the city's homicide total to 63 in 2010. Last year, the city had 59 at this time and there were 80 in all of of 2009. Yet Turner said it's important not to lose sight of the advances in crime that have been made, as documented by the FBI report: Rapes in the city are down 24 percent from this time last year, robberies 17 percent and aggravated assaults 5 percent.

Violent crime in Georgia dropped slightly from 4.8 victims for every 1,000 people to 4.2 victims between 2008 and 2009.

Forsyth County Sheriff Ted Paxton said the drop in crime runs counter to a struggling economy, when desperate people typically are apt to created more crimes. He could not explain that outcome, other than to point to better policing.

"I would just presume our efforts in the county are paying off," he said.

Corporal Brian Kelly of the Gwinnett Police said the effects of a slow economy might not have had time emerge, but pointed out that unincorporated Gwinnett still has had a significant drop in murders, from 35 last year to 17 so far in 2010.

Staff writers Tammy Joyner, Dan Raley, Katie Leslie and Craig Schneider contributed to this article.

Metro Atlanta’s Worst Crime

Pop. Viol. Prop. Tot. 2008

College Park     19,936 1 1 1   (1)

East Point        43,753 4 2 2 (4)

Chamblee         11,410 6 3 3 (3)

Atlanta           552,901 2 4 4 (2)

Forest Park      21,760 7 6 5 (5)

Cumming          5,909 21 5 6 (6)

Fairburn          11,750 16 7 7 (8)

Lilburn            11,625 13 8 8 (9)

Norcross           11,031 5 9 9 (10)

Doraville          10,308 9 13 10 (11)

Rankings based on per capita results for violent, property and total crime; Jonesboro dropped out of top 10 from seventh highest in 2008.

FBI methodology

The FBI collects crime data through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program, as reported by city and town law enforcement agencies. The data includes such violent crimes as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, and property crimes of burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft. The FBI’s recent report includes data collected during 2009.

Population estimates were factored by computing the individual rates of growth from one year to the next for every city or town, and county, using 2000 decennial population counts. Population estimates from 2001 to 2009 came from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the FBI, each agency’s rates of growth were averaged; that average was then applied and added to its 2008 Census population estimate to factor the agency’s 2009 population estimate.

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