How Safe is Erie?
The Jefferson Educational Society looks for answers in a new essay.
Last month, a concise, readable essay titled "Is Erie A Safe City? Perception, Reality, Recommendations" was released by the Jefferson Educational Society, a local think tank dedicated to promoting "civic enlightenment and community progress," according to their website. Since the essay's title asks an important question, I'll begin with a summary of their answers.
In short, Erie is probably less dangerous than you suspect. According to the Jefferson's findings, we're living in "one of the safest cities in the tri-state area," with a substantially lower violent crime rate than most similar cities nearby. Better still, national crime rates have declined substantially over the past two decades and our community appears to be following similar trends, albeit more slowly. Not all of the news is positive, though – since 2006, our violent crime rate has exceeded the national average each year.
Not ready to pop open the champagne and celebrate? A closer look at the evidence might prove more compelling...
Most of the violent crime data in the essay comes from two sources, the Erie Police Department (EPD) and the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports (UCR). The UCR data is compiled from monthly law enforcement reports and individual incident records, which are carefully examined for errors and deviations. Also, the Jefferson essay was written in response to data from the City of Erie only, not all of Erie County.
Let's start with the good news. Violent crime – a category which includes murder, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape – appears to be decreasing. According to the UCR, the number of violent crimes occurring in our city between 2010 and 2013 was about 459 incidents per year. By contrast, between 2006 and 2008, Erie averaged 550 violent crimes per year. If these numbers don't automatically thrill you, a more long term comparison might be useful. According to EPD statistics, the number of violent crimes in our city between 1991 and 1994 exceeded 800 incidents each year. Obviously our current numbers aren't ideal, but the overall trend appears positive.
To contextualize their findings, the Jefferson contrasted Erie's crime data with numbers from cities in the surrounding region with similar populations. When compared to Allentown, Reading, Albany, and Canton, Erie quickly emerges as the safest of the bunch. In 2011, for example, the UCR reported 431 violent crimes in Erie, whereas the number in Albany was more than twice as high, at 939.
To account for differing populations within each city, the Jefferson compared violent crime rates per 100,000 people. In 2013, when the UCR's findings are viewed through this lens, there were 73 more violent crimes in Allentown than in Erie, 354 more in Albany, 390 more in Reading, and 474 more in Canton.
Still feeling unsafe? That might be because homicides are still on the rise in our city. Between 2010 and 2014, the EPD reports an average of 8.3 murders per year. That's up from 3.3 per year between 2005 and 2009. But according to the essay, many of these homicides have been the "result of drug conflict, bar fights, neighborhood or family feuds, and as such do not pose a grave threat to the general public."
Another reason the essay suggests that we might feel unsafe is because positive news is often neglected. For example, according to a January 2015 New York Times article cited in the essay, the national murder rate has declined by a dramatic 56% since its peak in the 1990s. Consider this – in 1980, there were 10.2 homicides per 100,000 people in our country; by 2013, the average was 4.5. When I asked Dr. William Garvey, the Jefferson's president, about the discrepancies between crime data and public perception,
he responded with a humorous analogy: "It's primordial. It goes back to the fact that a rustle in the bushes might mean death for cavemen... We grow up with a feeling that life is dangerous, so we don't believe the figures."
Obviously there's still important work to be done locally to improve public safety. And it's probably premature to assume that the average reported gunshot is simply a firecracker in disguise. Accordingly, the Jefferson makes a number of suggestions to build on our positive momentum, including adding additional police officers to our ranks (especially through specialized units devoted to juveniles and family crises), working to improve ethnic diversity within the EPD, developing partnerships to eliminate blight in our community, and increasing police funding – either through a public safety tax or social capital funding.
One organization singled out by the study for positive progress "in implementing preventative policing" is UnifiedErie, a collaborative effort between the EPD, the District Attorney, and the Regional U.S. Attorney. UnifiedErie takes a three-pronged approach to crime in our city, by focusing on prevention, enforcement, and re-entry. When I spoke with UnifiedErie's Amy Eisert, who serves as the primary facilitator for the Erie County Policy and Planning Council for Children and Families, she noted that there are a "wealth of evidence-based programs in Erie, many of which have low referrals" dedicated to crime prevention and family services. UnifiedErie works to connect these organizations and improve public awareness about them. They have had particular success with family-oriented youth programs designed to encourage parents to find effective ways to demonstrate responsible behavior to children.
I asked Andrea Bierer, UnifiedErie's Community Action Plan Coordinator, how they hope to build on the momentum outlined in the Jefferson's essay, and she cited the importance of their 2015 Neighborhood Concerns Survey. The questionnaire, which will be available online until June 8, asks a series of neighborhood specific questions designed to provide "a more rounded picture of victimization, whether it's been reported or not." If you're skeptical about the official numbers the Jefferson has been using, this survey could provide a more complete picture by acknowledging what goes un-reported.
The Jefferson essay also praises the work of the Parade Street Blue Coats, a community-oriented mentorship program founded by City Councilman André Horton and community activist Daryl Craig. According to Horton, the Blue Coats are dedicated to "walking the line between the police and the community." They provide counseling to vulnerable youth in low income communities, work to de-escalate neighborhood conflicts, and advocate on behalf of troubled young people who demonstrate a willingness to change. A $300,000 Erie Community Foundation grant was recently awarded to the Erie School District to expand the Blue Coats' mentorship initiatives, which lead to the creation of a non-profit called Creative Community Connectors to bring their work to more schools in the region.
Since Councilman Horton represents many of Erie's most at-risk neighborhoods, I asked him what he thought of the Jefferson's findings. While he was quick to praise the emphasis on diversifying our police force, he also noted that "Erie is not a safer city for all. It depends on where you live." Horton thinks smarter policing can be as effective as increasing police numbers, and expressed some caution about the essay's emphasis on adding more officers. Horton said that he is "very aware that we need a partnership with law enforcement... but at the same time we need independent, outside oversight." He added that the best way to do that would be to create a Civilian Police Review Board to give people in the community a clearer voice when conflicts arise.
"Is Erie a Safe City?" is the first entry in a new series of essays sponsored by the Jefferson to weigh in "on subjects important to promoting civic growth and improvements." Though it may not provide a complete picture of public safety in our community, let's hope that it engenders greater enthusiasm about positive community development – and encourages us all to be a little less suspicious of our neighbors.
A free PDF of "Is Erie a Safe City?" is available online at www.jeserie.org. To respond to UnifiedErie's 2015 Neighborhood Concerns Survey, visit www.unifiederie.orgv