Low crime is a mixed blessing for Police Chief Douglas Scott, but a blessing he wouldn’t trade in. “It’s kind of a hard standard to walk into,” said Scott, who became Chief earlier this year replacing acting chief Stephen Holl after Ed Flynn accepted a position in Massachusetts.
He comes into the job with the second-lowest crime rate in the last 20 years, according to statistics that the police department released on Wednesday, June 4. They show that during 2002, serious crimes in Arlington dropped 6.4 percent from 2001. Law enforcement officials look at serious, or “index,” crimes like homicides, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries larcenies and stolen vehicles to determine yearly crime rate.
In Arlington, significant drops in the numbers of burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts during 2002 helped lower the crime rate to 3,370 index crimes per 100,000 population, down 283 from the rate of 3,653 in 2001.
Police hesitate to take too much credit for the low crime rate. “It really is a partnership,” said Scott. “Police can’t do it alone.” There are many factors that affect crime rates, said Matt Martin, a police department spokesman. “The police department does have some impact on it, but not as much as we would like,” said Martin.
But the outlook for crime in the county wasn’t all rosy.
The news isn’t all good. Despite an overall drop, the county did see increases in several categories, particularly in violent crime. In general terms, “crimes against people” increased, while “crimes against property” decreased, said Martin.
Robberies rose 7 percent, from 199 to 213, while aggravated assaults rose 18 percent, from 161 to 190. Five homicides were committed in the county, two more than in 2001, and there were 33 reports of forcible rapes in 2002, four more than were reported in 2001.
EXPLAINING CRIME TRENDS is a difficult task, said Martin, especially when looking at numbers from year to year. With such a low homicide rate in 2001, just two additional crimes meant an increase of 66.7 percent for 2002. Similarly, the slight rise in rapes translated to a 13.8 percent increase.
“It becomes an exercise in trying to figure out why one or two individuals committed certain crimes,” said Martin.
In assessing the effectiveness of a police department, it’s also necessary to look at the difference between lockup rates and crime rates, Martin said. One arrest can cover several different crimes.
If someone breaks into a home, beats up the homeowner and runs off with money, that one suspect helps increase the crime rate in several categories. “A relatively small number of individuals are responsible for a relatively large number of crimes,” explained Martin.
But lockup rates aren’t as important as crime rates to most citizens or businesses, said Rich Doud, Arlington Chamber of Commerce president and member of the Crime Solvers board of directors. “Crime prevention is a little bit tougher than catching criminals, and I think these statistics speak to crime prevention,” he said.
Crime rates do affect the health of the business community, and in Arlington, crime has never been a problem, said Doud. “I don’t think the year-to-year changes, either plus or minus, have much to do with what goes on in the business community,” he said, “Unless it’s really bad, but it never has been in Arlington.”
Doud reported that Crime Solvers recently paid a $1,000 reward for a tip that led to an arrest in a homicide case, only the second such reward paid in the last few years. “We don’t have that many rewards, because there aren’t that many crimes,” said Doud. “They are few and far between.”
LOW CRIME RATE in Arlington come as many police departments around the country are facing budgetary strains thanks to an increase in homeland security duties following Sept. 11.
But Martin says extra vigilance against possible terrorist attacks may be helping the Arlington force. “There are a number of things we’ve done since Sept. 11 that have to do with homeland security,” said Martin, like increasing patrols around possible targets. “I don’t believe I would categorize any of that as taking away from our traditional roles.”
In fact, federal grants after Sept. 11 helped the department modernize communications systems, helping all officers in their daily crime fighting.
County funding for police, meanwhile, increased from $32.5 million in 2001 to $35.5 million in 2002. The increase helped fund 2.3 full time additional positions in the department.
Numbers aside, the basic question everyone wants answered is whether Arlington County is safe, Martin said, and the answer is “a resounding yes.”