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Newsflash: Crime Is Down!

(As long as you don't count most crimes.)


"If you're going to talk in terms of crime," says - Councilman Bill Patmon, "you gotta include drugs." - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • "If you're going to talk in terms of crime," says Councilman Bill Patmon, "you gotta include drugs."
Bill Patmon was perplexed. The city council's Public Safety Committee was meeting to discuss jails, yet the councilman couldn't get a straight answer to what, it seemed, was a fairly simple question: Why are facilities so overcrowded?

For years, Cleveland has been touting statistics showing crime dropping like a stone. Just a few months before the March meeting, Mayor Michael White's office distributed figures for 2000 indicating that, once again, the bad guys were on the run. "Crime Down 34.6% Since 1990, 2.7% since 1999," the press released announced.

But if crime had declined so much, Patmon asked, why was space so scarce in jails? "The two things don't fit in the same box."

The answer was not what Patmon expected. Crime stats and jail overcrowding don't have much to do with one another, Cleveland Police Chief Martin Flask explained. One major reason is because drug crimes -- which account for a huge chunk of offenses in the city -- aren't included in the stats.

Under the Uniform Crime Reporting program, the index compiled by the feds to tabulate and compare data nationwide, eight types of serious crime are evaluated: murder, non-negligent manslaughter, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

But not drug crimes.

Patmon, whose ward encompasses the drug-ravaged Glenville neighborhood, couldn't believe it. "It seems to me that, if you're going to talk in terms of crime as it relates to the city, you gotta include drugs."

To do so, however, would reveal a far less sunny portrait of public safety in Cleveland. Violent crime has indeed dropped precipitously since 1990. Murder is down more than 60 percent, robbery more than 40 percent, and felonious assault more than 34 percent. Drug arrests, however, are charging in the opposite direction.

Over the last four years, drug busts have increased by more than 20 percent, totaling 11,256 last year, according to the Cleveland police department.

The mayor's office, long the principal trumpet for the crime-is-down thesis, now seems to be distancing itself from the issue. Spokesman Brian Rothenberg blames a familiar nemesis, The Plain Dealer, as the reason for dispersing the cheery -- though incomplete -- data. He says White was merely responding to an article indicating crime was up during the first half of 2000. Besides, he notes, the city doesn't decide how stats are calculated; the FBI does. "I can't really speak for how the FBI comes up with those indicators."

Flask adds that a rise in arrests doesn't necessarily correspond to rising crime. Over the last several years, he says, the department has increased its visibility throughout the city, putting more officers on the street, holding more meetings with residents, and being more responsive to neighborhood concerns. All of which means cops are aggressively targeting quality-of-life violations that previously were less of a priority, such as traffic, curfew, and drug offenses.

"We've had an increased number of officers out in the neighborhoods, which has given us the resources to go out and do more enforcement," says Flask.

But even he concedes that the rise in drug arrests can't be attributed solely to heightened enforcement. "There's been an increase in illegal activity."

Of course, none of this is news in neighborhoods where drugs flourish, places where the safer-streets mantra never provided much solace. After all, evidence to the contrary was available just by looking out the window. "I don't know if people feel the effects of crime going down," says Rob Whidden, a crime prevention manager for Cudell Improvement Inc., a West Side neighborhood association. "They see the people out there on a daily basis."

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