2013-09-26 / Front Page

A Safe Place to Live

By Daniel Highet

Newport, per capita, according to statistics published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was ranked fourth out of the 37 towns and cities in the State of Rhode Island reporting violent crime in 2012.

The data concerning violent crime in the City by the Sea was, on its face, startling.

“I do not believe for a moment that Newport has a problem with violent crime,” Mayor Henry F. Winthrop stated in an interview with Newport This Week when asked about the Bureau’s findings. “Can we get better than where we are? Of course, we can,” the Mayor said.

The FBI’s report, "Crime in the United States," is a compilation of offense and arrest data reported by law enforcement agencies voluntarily participating in the Uniform Crime Reporting program.

A cursory look at the figures, which in the violent crime category compiles reports of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery, tells an incomplete and misleading story, however, according to one criminal expert.

J. David Smith is the director of the graduate program in administration of justice and homeland security at Salve Regina University. Smith previously served as chief of police in Narragansett and Westerly, in addition to three years as director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency.

Smith cited a number of statistical and seasonable variables that can influence the data. For example, Cranston ranked number 10 on the per capita list with 78 aggravated assaults, yet number four Newport had virtually the same number of aggravated assaults at 77.

Asked to explain this apparent anomaly, Smith said, “What’s deceiving when you first look at these comparisons is that you have a relatively high number in a small location (Newport’s population is 24,595) and a relatively low record of reported offenses in a large population (Cranston has a population of 80,315). But I don’t think it’s fair to say this community is less safe. There is a spike in population in Newport during the summer tourist season that is undoubtedly a factor. And there are variables in how crimes are reported by local law enforcement agencies.”

On the latter point, Smith explained that the category of aggravated assault was specific to the FBI’s data but did not pertain to how courts define similar crimes as either ‘simple assault’ or ‘felony assault.’ Additionally, while one community’s law enforcement agency may submit a crime as an aggravated assault, another city’s police department may not.

Comparatively, Portsmouth, with a population of 17,331, and Middletown, with a population of 16,096, ranked 34 and 30 for total violent crimes per capita, and reported aggravated assaults at five and three, respectively.

“The reporting of crime is a variable,” Smith stated, “and there are so many factors that go into these statistics.”

Newport Chief of Police Gary Silva and Lt. William Fitzgerald Jr., commander of the community and traffic services unit, partly in response to public controversy concerning a perceived spike in assaults last Sept. and Oct., conducted a detailed collection of data and analysis related to over a thousand calls of service in 2012. Using CompStat (COMPuter STATistics, or COMParative STATistics), the software program first instituted in New York City and now employed by law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada, the NPD was able to apply a host of statistical controls and filters to source the most reliable figures related to crime in the city.

“The numbers are going down,” Lt. Fitzgerald stated. Chief Silva and Lt. Fitzgerald shared a copy of a CompStat report that indicated an 11% decrease in total crime from 2011 to 2012, and a 63% decrease in total crime between 1989 and 2012.

Last fall, Mayor Winthrop and City Manager Jane Howington called a pair of press conferences to address rumors, largely inflamed by comments on social media and a local blog, which led citizens to become concerned that a string of assaults was related to gang activity or a group of predatory assailants. Many locals were coming to believe that the Broadway area, in particular, was unsafe.

In order to identify any possible trend in crime or heightened activity in a specific locale, the NPD examined data on a quarterly basis going back a year.

“We set up a matrix applying a number of filters,” stated Lt. Fitzgerald, “including whether there was more than one assailant, was the perpetrator known or unknown to the victim, location, and other factors.”

The findings were conclusive: a trend of organized and violent assaults attributed to gang activity or a reputed group of repeat offenders did not exist.

“If crimes are alcohol-related, as is often the case with disorderly conduct you see during the summer tourist season, or related to quality of life, such as a nuisance house, and we determine causative factors or identify a trend, we deploy the level of officers necessary to address that zone,” stated Chief Silva.

The Off-Broadway Neighborhood Association meets regularly, typically once a month, to discuss community improvement, concerns with policing, nuisance homes, and other topics of interest.

“We asked the Mayor and the City Manager to meet with us, but they refused,” stated Jack McVicker, a local realtor and president of the Association, recalling last year when concerns about neighborhood safety, following the brutal attack on an owner of a Broadway restaurant, assault of a woman on her way home in the Broadway area; and a widely publicized homicide, were at a peak. Following the rash of violent incidents, approximately 50 Association members assembled to hear presentations from several local providers that sell and install security camera systems.

McVicker applauded the NPD’s Community Oriented Policing Unit, and in particular, the work of Officer James Winters at a meeting of the Association on Tuesday, Sept. 24. However, McVicker was outspoken in his belief that the City Council has not been interested in engaging the member residents at a level necessary to begin a meaningful dialogue when neighborhood conditions or incidents warranted their attention.

A community’s perception of crime, whether concerning violent assaults or lesser offenses related to quality of life, does not always align with statistical evidence but often sides with heightened emotions.

All of us who care about this community—the people who own businesses and property, who choose to live, work and raise their children here, our civic leaders, and especially those charged with our safety—should feel reassured that Newport is a safe place to live.

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