Violent crime is rising in major American cities, recent studies have demonstrated, and the steady stream of local news reports seems to make it impossible to miss the fact that crime is an everyday occurrence in metro Birmingham.
But does that mean that you are bound to be victimized at some point?
The numbers still say no. The experts still say no. But at the same time, various law enforcement agencies are providing resources to help you avoid becoming a victim and many of the suggestions available today haven’t changed over the years.
Starting with the numbers: a midyear report released in July 2016 by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which tracks crimes reported in 61 American communities shows that homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults and non-fatal shootings are all up over midyear 2015. Birmingham is not a member of the MCCA, and the city’s numbers are not included in the tabulations, which are self-reported to the MCCA by agencies that choose to do so.
Currently, local numbers suggest that Birmingham’s homicide rate may be ticking up from what they were in 2015. The website Bhamwiki, which maintains a list of homicides (any violent death, as distinct from the subcategory of murder) based entirely on news reports, shows that as of August 18, the 64 homicides reported in the city would be projected to reach 101 by the end of the year. If that projection proves true, this year would see exactly one more unlawful death than 2015.
The current number of homicides in Birmingham is already higher than in all of 2014, where only 62 people died by homicides.
What are your chances?
What are your chances of being a victim of a violent crime?
The conclusions of a number of statisticians based on data from several sources suggests that your chance of being a victim of violent crime — especially murder — is probably low, depending on a variety of factors.
For instance, the magazine The Economist, quoting a report issued in 2014 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, indicated that your odds of being murdered depend largely on demographics based on 2012 numbers. If you lived in the Americas in 2012, you had a 1 in 6100 chance of being murdered, according to those numbers.
(Compare that with strictly U.S. numbers, tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control for 2010 and noted in the 2013 article “What are the Odds of Being Murdered” on discovertheodds.com, which give you 1 in 18,989 chance of being murdered in any given year.)
“Next, be a woman,” The Economist article said. “Your chance of being murdered will be barely a quarter what it would be were you a man. In fact, steer clear of men altogether: nearly half of all female murder-victims are killed by their partner or another (usually male) family member.”
Who you are, where you are, what you’re doing
Age also makes a difference. The UN numbers indicate that your chances of becoming a victim of murder drops from the age of 30 and onward. Those conclusions are similar to what Leonard Sipes reports on his website CrimeInAmerica.net, using data from the National Crime Survey.
Sipes, who was for 10 years one of the nation’s chief crime prevention experts as the senior specialist for Crime Prevention for the National Criminal Justice Reference Service and the director of Information Services for the National Crime Prevention Council, notes that who you are, where you are, and most important — what you’re doing — make all the difference in your chances of becoming victim of a crime.
“For example, those age 65 or older have, by far, the lowest rates of violent crime,” Sipes writes. “However, if that 65-year-old chooses to go into a high crime neighborhood and purchase drugs, then his risk for violence dramatically increases.
“If a 14-year-old (those 12-17 have the highest rates for violent crime) chooses to spend her evenings studying and spending time with her family, her chances for violent crime victimization drop dramatically.
Females knew their offenders in almost 70 percent of violent crimes committed against them (they are relatives, friends or acquaintances). If females make the best possible choices as to who they associate with (if they have a choice) their rates for violent crime drop considerably.”
Still, Sipes also points out that demographics beyond the victim’s control play a role: men are more likely to be victims than women, blacks have a higher rate of crime victimization than whites, people of mixed race have a higher rate of victimization than blacks and Hispanics have a lower rate than either blacks, whites or people of mixed race.
Members of the LGBTQ community or any “groups that are marginalized by society (i.e., nerds bullied by peers, immigrants, members of non-mainstream religions) are probably at a higher risk for threats and the psychological implications that come with it,” Sipes wrote.
People with lower household incomes have higher rates of property crimes being committed against them. Larger households (in size) have higher property crime rates than smaller households. People living in single family homes are less likely to be victimized than those who live in apartments.
Marital status figures into your chances of being victimized by crime, as Sipes notes. Those who have never married have higher rates of victimization than those who are married. But those who are divorced have slightly higher rates than those who never married, while those who are married but separated have the highest rates of all.
Geographic conclusions fit with the conventional wisdom, as Sipes reports. People living in urban areas, according to the National Crime Survey, experience “much higher rates” of violent and property crimes than people living in suburban or rural areas.
But despite those elements that may be either impossible or difficult to change, much of your individual risk, Sipes said, still depends on your choices.
“If you are 24 years of age and living in an apartment complex with three other people in an urban area and you are a person of modest income, your chances for crime and/or violent victimization are going to be much higher than a 50-year-old living in a single family house with one additional person in a rural area,” he wrote in his summary.
“But, if you are 24 years of age and living in an apartment complex in an urban area and you are a person of modest income who is going to college, and only associates with trusted friends and works part-time, and engages in limited socializing in high crime areas, your chance for violent victimization is going to be much lower than a 50-year-old living in a single family house in a rural area who spends his life in a bar after a separation.
“In the final analysis, our chances for violent victimization are more controlled by what we do than by who we are,” Sipes concluded.
Demographics and choices
A similar conclusion can be drawn by the CDC data reported on discovertheodds.com. The article first notes that demographics influence risk:
Besides location in general and socioeconomic context in particular, there are demographic characteristics that are relevant to an individual’s odds of being murdered, including sex, race and age…
In other words, an individual is most likely to be murdered by someone who has the same demographic traits, within his own socioeconomic context. More often than not, males are murdered by males, blacks are most often murdered by blacks and young adults are most often murdered by young adults.
However, murder and violence are tied not only to individual demographic traits, but also intrinsically to community level characteristics as well, as “communities are often segregated by SES, race, and ethnicity,” the American Psychological Association (APA) asserts. The APA goes on to explain that “community level risk factors for violence include increased levels of unemployment, poverty, and transiency; decreased levels of economic opportunities and community participation; poor housing conditions; and a lack of access to services.”
But the same article also points to the element of choice:
Murder is often precipitated by one of two additional factors as well: either an interpersonal relationship characterized by a history of confrontation or abuse or an active attempt to commit another crime.
Less than 30 percent of murders occur as a result of an active attempt to commit a felony, such as a robbery.
Murders involving a male victim and a male perpetrator most frequently occur during the course of or following a confrontation, an argument that in many cases originated because of a perceived slight, challenge or insult on the part of a male friend or acquaintance.
The notion that what we do and with whom may increase or decrease crime victimization risk fits with a point made by Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper in a Weld story last year: Many — not all, but many — people who are killed unlawfully have been engaged in what he calls “risky behavior,” or involved with “risky people.”
“There is a growing body of research in the field of criminal justice that supports the premise that homicide victimization is usually linked to risky behaviors or risky people,” Roper said. “And, in fact, a person’s social network or association has a major impact on homicide victimization rates. For us, the bottom line is most of our homicides involve illegal drugs, domestic violence or some other form of relationship conflict. And the vast majority of our homicides involve people who know each other.”
Risk factors and statistics may be in your favor, but they don’t provide an absolute guarantee that your personal number won’t come up — however small your chances might naturally be.
Making your risk even smaller
Lessening your chances of becoming a victim still depends on managing risk, and local law enforcement agencies are among the many making outreach efforts to help you do just that. Both the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the Birmingham Police Department have staff members whose jobs entail helping ordinary citizens take action to limit their exposure to crime or their likelihood of being victimized.
BPD’s crime prevention officers (CPO) are civilians who both have decades of experience giving crime prevention tips to various groups. Both Charles Huffman and Felicia Watkins Mearon were interviewed for a book on crime prevention more than 20 years ago. While their recommendations remain the same, they’ve expanded their tips to include issues that were only minor problems in the 1990s — identity theft, cyber-crime and active shooter situations.
Dodge the con
For instance, when she spoke last week to a group at the New Haven Senior Center in Pratt City, Mearon sought to help her older listeners avoid a common problem. “Do not speak to telemarketers,” she told them. “You’re giving them the opportunity to get your money.”
She advised her audience at New Haven to be careful on the internet, and especially cautious of any email seeking to solicit business or sell them something. If you want to buy something, she said, seek out and approach a reputable company, making sure their site is secure before making a transaction. “Lastly, make sure — this is very important — check your credit card statement every month for fraudulent transactions.”
Older people are among the most easily victimized by criminals, including con artists who reach out to them in person or through any number of means of communication. Often criminals play on either greed or their more trusting nature. “If you never expect something for nothing, you never need to worry about being conned,” she said.
Her fellow CPO Huffman, who is himself heading for retirement, agreed. Victims of con games can be any age, but grifters particularly target the elderly, he said. “Elderly people are usually more trusting,” Huffman said, adding, “And I don’t know why, [but] they’ll get greedy on you in a minute.”
Often con games begin when the person approaches and asks the mark for help in some way, sometimes offering some potential material gain. Huffman’s advice: don’t get taken in.
“Do not stop and talk,” he said. “They… approach you for a reason. Usually, the person that gets taken is the greedy person. They try to appeal to the greediness in you.
“Direct them to the proper authorities — quickly,” he said. “If you stand and talk you’re weak and they know it.”
The goal, he said, is to end your connection with the con quickly, whether the grifter approaches in a parking lot or by phone.
One of the more insidious aspects of confidence games is the fact that several people will be victimized before one of them will report the incident to the police. “Usually, people don’t even report it because they’re ashamed,” Huffman said, adding, “But you should tell.”
A particularly effective con involves grifters — and sometimes violent criminals — posing as police officers, he said. If someone attempts to pull you over in an unmarked car, and you have any doubt, Huffman’s advice is to make sure to stop in a very public place.
“Go to a fire station or a police station if you know the area. Or to an open place of business,” he said “Then, if he’s legit he’s going to follow you and he would understand, as far as your apprehension.”
If someone comes to your home seeking to gain entry claiming to be a police officer, it’s wise to take reasonable precautions, Huffman said, even if they have what appears to be a legal document like a warrant. “Anybody can present a document. To be on the safe side, go and call the police — and they should know he’s there — prior to letting them into your home,” he said. Huffman said the same advice goes for any unknown person trying to get into your house.
“Call the company” the visitor claims to represent, he said. “That may seem like a whole lot of trouble, but it would be worse if he is not who he says he is.”
Tips for women
Mearon, in a seminar for women, advised her listeners to avoid putting themselves “in a situation to be victimized,” taking such precautions as not parking in alleyways, and “always being cognizant of what’s in our environment.” She recommended taking evasive maneuvers if you feel something isn’t right with any person approaching you.
She also advised women to carry only what they need. “If you don’t have a purse, you can’t be a victim of a purse snatching,” she said. She also recognizes that many women will nevertheless carry purses, but she had advice in that case, too. “Just limit the items that you carry in the purse.”
She advised women to keep any purse they carry front to avoid snatches from behind. But no matter where you carry it and no matter what’s inside it, don’t be so attached to it that you risk your safety, she said. “Don’t wear your purse across your body because a purse snatcher will hurt you to get it. Nothing on our person is worth our getting hurt,” she said.
Women who are alone are more vulnerable than those with a “buddy” she said, adding that those who are alone need to pay particular attention to their own “sixth sense” – they need to be practice situational awareness.
“If you see someone out of place, stay in your car,” Mearon said. If necessary, circle the block before stopping, she said, adding that when you do stop and leave the car, making it clear that you’re aware of your surroundings is smart.
“Walk confidently. Before you leave your place, know where you’re going. Plan your route. Convey the message that you do know where you’re going. Don’t drop your head. Always convey the message that ‘I see you’,” she said.
Although Mearon did not encourage women to carry guns — “When it comes to taking a life, most women will hesitate,” she said — she did suggest that women plan to fight back if attacked, screaming, using personal alarm, pepper spray or even brass knuckles. Most criminals, confronted with a woman who will fight back, would rather move on than push their luck, she said. “Most of our criminals are amateurs. They’re not professionals. They’re opportunists,” she said.
Birmingham Police crime prevention officers work out of individual precincts – Mearon out of West Precinct, Huffman out of North, for instance, and offer workshops targeting crime trends in a particular area, and geared toward specific groups, including homeowners and renters. One of the easiest ways to access their services is through your local neighborhood association, Mearon said.
For instance, the CPOS will provide a service called a security audit to citizens at no charge, examining their residential or business properties for potential issues and offering recommendations. “We tell you basic simple inexpensive things you can do to secure your property,” Mearon said.
A major aspect of her work involves helping law abiding citizens understand “the connection between the physical environment and the criminal element,” meaning that cleaner, more well-kept properties tend to have fewer property crimes and discourage crime in general, she said. Often that involves sending out “good neighbor” letters to property owners explaining how they can modify their own environment to make the whole neighborhood a little safer for everyone.
Do such crime prevention efforts work? Mearon said yes, citing her own experience in the western area of Birmingham.
“When I was transferred to West Precinct about 11 years ago, there was a particular block that was well on its way to becoming a slum area,” she said. “The street is Bush Circle which is just off of Bush Blvd. In this circle, a resident contacted me and took the initiative to help organize her neighbors and started Neighborhood Block Watch (NBW). Through NBW we addressed a lot of the issues that contributed to the deterioration of the block and as a result, improvements were made to turn this block around.
“This block, in my opinion, represents all that crime prevention and Neighborhood Block Watch should be. I will always consider this block to be one of my greatest accomplishments while assigned to the western area of town, and most people know this area has many, many challenges.”
Get to know your neighbors
Ultimately, crime prevention is about doing what you can to lower your risk of victimization and that, experts said, begins with recognizing vulnerabilities.
“The only way, really, I think people can be interested in proactive crime prevention measures is to accept that possibility and try to develop a plan for themselves that fits their personality, strengths and weaknesses – that fits their lifestyle,” said Joe Harpold, a supervisory special agent with the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences division, interviewed for the same unpublished crime prevention book mentioned above. “I think that’s at the basis for people being able to reduce their vulnerability. Crime prevention requires that people will in some ways change their lifestyle and also develop a plan for what they will and will not be able to do.”
Harpold’s advice included some which has survived the test of time: if you want to make your neighborhood safer, get to know your neighbors. He spoke of the value of programs like Neighborhood Watch.“When people don’t know each other, we have a real license for crime to creep in,” he said. “We need the good people to band together.”
The people who heard Mearon speak at the New Haven senior center last week included a group of older women who made known their complaints about sketchy people hanging around their complex, problems with lighting, noise and vandalism in their Pratt City community. Mearon encouraged them to keep speaking up.
“It all boils down to your quality of life,” she said, adding that criminals prefer it when people are silent. “You have every right to help maintain your quality of life.”
For more information about crime prevention outreach in Birmingham contact your local precinct. For more information about the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office crime prevention efforts, visit the agency’s website, jeffcosheriff.net.