Examining link between crime and economic development

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Published: August 15,2005

Jackson — In 2001, 16,706 property crimes were reported in the Capital City. Of those, the Jackson Police Department (JPD) made 194 arrests. Of 68 indictments related to those crimes, the majority of those convicted received suspended sentences.

“It’s downright scary,” said Mark McCreery, chairman of the SafeCity Initiative board. “The year 2001 was a really bad one, and property crimes were among the worst. If your business gets broken into, there’s a sense of violation, and that’s what makes people think about moving outside the city limits. Is it any wonder that Jackson had a population of 202,000 in 1980 and now there’s only about 176,000?”

In the last four years, the crime rate has dropped in Jackson, although the 2005 reporting period shows more criminal activity than in 2004. For example, in the period from May 30-June 26, 107 business burglaries were reported to the JPD, compared to 97 the year before.

“We’re literally in the file cabinets analyzing what is happening behind the scenes,” said McCreery. “Sometimes stats are a little misleading … folks in West Jackson are dealing with 10 to 15 times the national average for crime. And that doesn’t tell the full story.”

Former East Ford dealership owner A.L. East III said, “Crime rates aren’t just stick-ups and what-have-you. It’s internal pilferage by employees. It’s customers coming in and getting services and not paying for them. Shoplifting in Jackson is one of the major problems big chain stores have. If you do catch someone and take him in to get prosecuted, nothing happens. The criminal element has found a honey hole.”

Duane O’Neill, executive director of the MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce, said the economic development organization has been working to address crime with the judicial systems and police and sheriff’s departments in the tri-county area.

“We’ve noticed a few holes in each area…maybe it’s not all about law enforcement, probably not all about the court systems or jails, but all of it has to work together,” he said. “Our hope is that people involved in any facet of the criminal justice system will come together to be part of the solution. The attitude of everyone working toward the goal will be the only way to overcome it completely.”

A turning point

New Jackson Mayor Frank Melton has vowed to make public safety a top priority and has already taken action to show that he means business. For example, he dismissed the police chief and replaced him with JPD veteran Shirlene Anderson. He wants to increase salaries for the 489 sworn JPD officers to the same pay level as those in Shreveport, Mobile and Birmingham. The starting salary for a JPD officer is $23,500, compared to $30,348 in Shreveport and $36,474 in Memphis.

“It’s pretty clear what the mayor’s priorities are, and from an economic development and business recruitment standpoint, we are certainly excited about the new energy this gives to our efforts,” said Franklyn Tate, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development and Office of Economic Development. “Crime is one of many issues that affect businesses’ decision to stay in an area or locate elsewhere. Whether the perception is accurate or not, or the numbers reflect it or not, there is some sense on the part of the business that they will incur additional liabilities in the form of lost business.”

O’Neill pointed out that metro-area crime is “not just a Jackson issue.”

“Crime spreads,” he said. “Collectively, the metro community has to rid ourselves of it. I truly believe the new mayor has already made a major difference in having business owners believe crime is something he’ll address diligently and completely. In some instances, storeowners that have thought about moving from one spot to another because of crime are waiting to see what happens next. Frank Melton’s stance is bringing a confidence to those who have businesses in the core city.”

Before a site visit, prospects, economic developers and consultants have generally done their research and are well aware of area crime statistics, said Steve Martin, spokesperson for the Mississippi Development Authority.

“Information is as close as your keyboard; the data is there for one to review,” he said. “Yes, criminal activity would be a factor in the decision process. However, at the top of the list is the size of the labor pool and education, with the bottom line being just that, the bottom line. Is there a potential for profit at this location?”

Catch-22?

“Economic growth is hindered by high crime rates, and insufficient economic opportunity contributes to high crime. By continuing to foster economic development and improve the quality of basic education, more jobs are created, thus expanding opportunities for our citizens,” said Martin.

David Rasmussen, dean of the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University, who has extensively researched the economics of crime and criminal justice, economic development, and urban and regional economics, said high crime is definitely a deterrent to economic development.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But you can lower the crime rate by having an investment nearby (high crime areas) in a safe place and increase accessibility to jobs. Uncertainty in the environment is always going to hurt investment.”

Evidence is clear that crime rates drop when access to jobs increases, said Rasmussen.

“If people can get to suburban areas or to a reasonable proximity with jobs, then you have a lower crime rate,” he said. “It’s not enough to have the jobs. People have to be able to get to them.”

McCreery, who also serves on the Mississippi Wireless Commission, said the group is pushing for “a vendor-neutral statewide wireless communications system with common standards for law enforcement.”

“We must put accountability into the system,” he said, “with shared data to make communication flow better.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

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