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City Bucks National Crime Trend

National violent crime rates are up, but the City of Fairfax is trying to stay away from that trend.

The City of Fairfax is not exempt from a national trend of increasing violent crimes, but it is ahead of the game when it comes keeping those increases in check.

Nationally, violent crime is up, but in the City of Fairfax, it’s holding steady or even decreasing. The only crime rates that increased in the city from 2005 to 2006 were vandalism, a nonviolent crime, and robbery, a violent crime. Rape and aggravated assaults — both classified as violent crimes — declined in the city, which went against recent national trends. Burglary, larceny, motor vehicle thefts, hate crimes and hate incidents all decreased in the city as well, following the national decline of nonviolent crimes.

"We’re fortunate in the city to live in a community that has a better than average decline," said Col. Rick Rappoport, the City’s police chief.

Rape in the city was down about 14 percent from 2005 to 2006 and the murder rate was stagnant at one per year. Robberies were up from seven in 2005, to 20 in 2006, or a 185 percent increase. Aggravated assaults were down from 26 to 22 — a 15 percent decline.

THE CITY OF FAIRFAX Police Department has more on its plate than just protecting and serving the 22,500 residents in the city. More than 300,000 cars travel through the city daily, and more than 30,000 people are employed in the city, according to police data. The boundaries with the county are practically invisible too, said Rappoport.

But Rappoport points to many contributing factors, especially the community members, when explaining why the city’s crime rate is, in general, declining.

He said the city is a healthy community, with good jobs and lots of them. The city doesn’t necessarily suffer from a lot of the social factors that other communities deal with, such as large unemployment rates, a lack of opportunity or difficulty with childcare.

"It makes you feel appreciative to feel how fortunate we are," said City Councilmember Scott Silverthorne.

Community members, Rappoport said, aren’t afraid to pick up the phone and call police when something is out of whack, which contributes to the success of the police force.

"It’s a small town," said City Councilmember Gail Lyon. "People are watching out for other people."

THE POLICE EXECUTIVE RESEARCH Forum (PERF), a Washington think tank whose board of directors comprises police chiefs from around the country, conducted a study that shows a national upward trend of violent crimes. The study, "Violent Crime in America: 24 Months of Alarming Trends," gathered crime data from 56 jurisdictions across the country in 2006 to determine the severity of the upward trend.

PERF gathered the data using the same methods as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. The organization was able to release the information prior to the FBI report because of an August 2006 conference. More than 170 law enforcement and city officials attended and agreed to release their violent crime data for the first six months of the year— earlier than they normally release the data. The latest statistics for the entire year of 2006 reinforce PERF’s predictions, according to the report.

Based on that data, the think tank determined that a 24-month trend of increased crime is obvious, based on the jurisdictions sampled.

The trend began in 2005, when the nation’s violent crime rose by 2 percent — the first increase in 13 years, according to the latest available FBI data.

Fairfax County experienced a 166 percent increase in the number of homicides from 2004 to 2005, which went from nine to 20. In 2006, the rate dropped 20 percent, from 24 in 2005 to 19 in 2006, however the two-year total increase was still 111 percent, according to PERF. The county’s robberies were up 3 percent in the two-year period, but aggravated assaults decreased almost 12 percent.

In the City of Fairfax, the homicide increase was 100 percent from 2004 to 2005, but the increase percentage is misleading because the city had no homicides in 2004 and only one in 2005. There was also one homicide in 2006.

Rappoport said that jurisdictions generally follow national trends to some extent, but the city tends to do pretty well.

"The good trends, we’ve been better at, and the bad things, we’re not that bad at," he said, referring to the city’s comparison to national crime trends.

LYON SAID the city’s police department is great at pinpointing the problem neighborhoods in the city, which Rappoport said there aren’t many of anyway. The very active communities tend to keep crime spikes in specific neighborhoods down, Rappoport said. People have neighborhood watches and generally feel comfortable with reporting situations to police, so criminals haven’t exactly been able to infiltrate one neighborhood over another.

Another benefit in the city is the location of the Fairfax County Judicial Center, he said. This creates a highly visible police presence, from all jurisdictions, in and around the City of Fairfax.

When a problem occurs, though, such as the recent string of larcenies happening in the Mosby Woods neighborhood, police get a grip on it and take action, getting the community involved along the way.

Police saw an obvious pattern of vehicle larcenies in Mosby Woods. The thief or thieves stole petty items out of mostly unlocked cars parked in driveways. In response, police did a reverse 911 and notified residents to be on the lookout. The department also advised the community to lock their doors and to remove valuables from cars.

"It all starts with people picking up the phone to call us," said Rappoport. "I’m just delighted we have that kind of relationship with our citizens."

Rappoport hopes the upcoming Citizens Police Academy will improve that relationship even more. The Citizens Police Academy invites members of the community to learn about the police department, said Rappoport. It’s an 11-week program, beginning in August. Citizens will meet with the department one evening per week for hands-on and classroom instruction, including patrol, investigations, gangs, tactical operations, communications and crime-scene management.

"It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time," he said. "With the new facility, now we have the space."

Councilmember Patrice Winter pointed to successful events like National Night Out, coming up in early August, as proof that the community and the police are working together. The police officers are successful leaders, she said, because they inspire those around them by being knowledgeable and approachable.

Rappoport hopes the academy can breed more volunteers for the city’s police department as well. The city isn’t necessarily hurting for volunteers, but their work is always needed in one area or another. The advantage of volunteering with the police department is that people can volunteer in an area of their personal expertise, if they choose. The department is open to new ideas for volunteer jobs. Rappoport remembered one volunteer several years ago that noticed the building needed some new bookshelves, "so he built them for us."

THE CITY’S RELATIONSHIP with surrounding jurisdictions is also a great one, said Rappoport.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the local jurisdictions talk to each other more efficiently, he said. Law enforcement officials throughout the region communicate with each other via radio, with the flip of a switch.

Virginians in general get the word out that crime won’t be tolerated, said Rappoport, especially through the judicial system. Juries convict and witnesses testify, and it "sends a very powerful message," he said.

As for the city’s future, there’s no sure way to predict if the crime rate will continue to decline. With the new Old Town Village development opening later this year in downtown Fairfax, Rappoport said the police will go through a learning curve as they do with any new big business. Places that serve alcohol obviously pose different issues than, say, a movie theater would, he said.

"We’ll work through those issues, and we’ll do it effectively," Rappoport said. "We have a very responsive, reactive city government."