Concord officers keep busy

The Concord Police Department recently released its first community report, revealing statistics showing the city has a below-average rate of serious crimes, but has officers who are busy responding to a high number of calls for service.

The report, which gives an overview of crime statistics from 2009 and performance reports, will be released annually, said Capt. Betty Crump, the department's police planner who assembled the report.

The report is intended to provide the public with information, as well as to reduce the fear of crime, said Concord Police Chief Merl Hamilton.

"We have a lot more fear of crime than actual crime in Concord," he said.

The report includes graphs that show how Concord compares to other N.C. cities of a similar size and population, such as Hickory and Gastonia. The data is part of the N.C. Benchmarking Project, which allows N.C. municipalities to compare themselves to other participating municipalities.

The report identifies crimes based on their severity. Part I crimes include violent crimes such murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, as well as burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. Part II crimes are considered less serious offenses.

In 2009, the city had 3,400 Part I crimes. In 2008, the number was 3,375.

Compared to other cities, Concord had fewer Part I crimes per 1,000 people in 2009, and Concord was the top performer in the percentage of Part I cases cleared.

As the city's population has grown and more retailers come to the area, the potential for crime has increased, said Hamilton. If the city maintains approximately the same level of crime, he considers the department to be working on par, he said.

The department has seen decreases in crime over the past few years, particularly among Part I crimes, which accompanies a national trend in declining crime rates. Some police professionals anticipated an increase in crime as a result of the slumping economy.

"I didn't anticipate that," said Hamilton. "Poor does not equal criminal."

Preliminary figures released in May by the FBI indicate that enforcement agencies throughout the country reported a 5.5 percent decrease in the number of violent crimes in 2009.

But Hamilton said he believes that the trend in Concord can be attributed to the department's community involvement and interaction with residents.

Concord has about 40 recognized neighborhood associations, and officers regularly attend associations' meetings, resulting in a more common willingness to bring issues to the attention of the police, he said.

"They're willing to communicate and point out the problems," said Hamilton.

But that willingness to report problems has resulted in an increase number of calls to which police must respond.

According to the report, Concord officers have an above-average rate of calls dispatched per officer.

The department has adopted a community policing philosophy, a time-intensive method of creating partnerships within the community, but Hamilton said the city isn't short on officers.

"I'm comfortable where we are with our manpower," he said. The department has 158 sworn officers.

The fiscal 2011 budget recently adopted by the Concord City Council allocates funds to hire two customer service specialists who will serve as a "telephone reporting unit."

Hamilton explained that officers frequently go out to collect information about crimes in situations in which they don't necessarily have to be at the scene to collect the information.

He gave the example of the theft of a lawnmower. If a resident reports a stolen lawnmower, an officer would drive to his home and speak with the resident to write up a report.

The customer service specialists will collect the same information the officer would, but over the phone rather than in person, which will save officers time and give them more opportunity to patrol the streets, said Hamilton.

That, it turn, could held reduce crime rates, he added.

"Instead of spending an hour taking a report, that officer can spend his time circulating the neighborhood," he said. "The way you inspire people to call the police and reduce fear of crime is to have a visible police presence."

The department has also applied for federal funding that could pay for the department to bring on three more officers.

The numbers look good, said Hamilton, but they're not everything.

He said flaunting statistics diminishes the impact of crime on victims.

"Numbers become very impersonal," he said. "You can't base what you do just on the numbers, and a police department can't base everything they do on statistics."