Small cities cope with crime surge

Leroy Hyman, a retired postal worker, lives in a tidy working-class neighborhood of Greenville. Petunias and forget-me-nots frame the front porches of brick ranch homes. On the surface, it is all Norman Rockwell - geraniums and Southern geniality.

Yet underneath lies something more sinister. Last week, a young man was shot to death a few blocks away. A month before, a similar scene had unfolded on a nearby block. Pops of small-caliber gunfire frequently punctuate the night.

"The violent crime in Greenville is terrible, worse even than New York City," says Mr. Hyman, a native North Carolinian who lived for years in the Bronx before retiring back here. "There's a lot of killing in this place."

Violent crime, once mainly the purview of big urban centers, is now growing in many small and mid-size cities. Even as aggressive policing in places like Boston, New York, and Los Angeles helped dramatically lower the nation's overall crime rate in the 1990s, towns like Springfield, Mass.; Victoria, Texas; and Hattiesburg, Miss.; are now seeing a rise in murder, assaults, and other violent incidents.

Some analysts, in fact, attribute the increase to criminal elements being shooed out of the larger cities. Others say it's simply the lack of good jobs, and a culture of violence that has seeped into small-town America.

"I think now we're seeing some of the medium-sized and small cities in the US play catch-up," says Jack Levin, the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "They never bothered to institute the reforms, policies, and programs that impacted violent crime, because ... they felt immune from what they saw as big-city issues. Now they're paying the price."

According to preliminary FBI statistics, cities with 10,000 people or fewer saw a 15 percent increase in violent crimes from 2002 to 2003, while cities with 100,000 or less experienced a 10 percent increase. This comes at a time when the average national figures have been steadily dropping. What's more, a study of crime rates in West Oakland, Calif., showed that, between 1999 and 2003, the use of a gun during aggravated assaults jumped from 19 percent to 41 percent - a trend that police see playing out across the country.

"The murder rate in small-city America right now is astronomical," says Jim Wyatt, a city councilor in Victoria, Tex. "It's a small portion of the population involved in these activities, but they have a huge effect on how the community feels about itself."

To be sure, many cities aren't standing idly by while lawlessness spreads. Some have already lowered the number of lesser crimes like larceny and robbery.

Take Greenville (pop. 60,000). A university town, Greenville is flat and lush and steamy, its modest brick-storefront downtown studded with a few banks, state offices, clubs, and grill joints. In the neighborhoods, children chase puppies as young men work on cars and women relax on porches.

In many cases, police are doing what they can, patrolling "bad neighborhoods" and expanding contact with young people. But while overall crime is down, it's the most violent acts, often the result of turf rivalries, that police are finding more difficult to curb. The city ranked 32nd nationally in terms of murders per 100,000 people last year and 52nd in terms of all violent crime - ahead of big cities like Atlanta. The violence has even spread onto the university campus, where two rapes occurred earlier this year.

"I can't say that we're seeing an increase in incidents, but we do get a steady stream of gunshot and knife wounds from fights," says Pam Cope, a nursing supervisor at East Carolina Medical Center in Greenville. "It's just a fact of life."

According to a recent RAND Corp. study, much of today's street violence stems from rivalries between "loose associations" of blacks ensnared in what researcher Jack Riley calls the "Lord of the Flies" effect. It involves the "nastiest" young men rising to the top of the drug trade, and then trying to control the streets.

All crime is local, of course, and each city has its underlying causes. As much as anything, many experts say, it's a lack of familial and community values that are contributing to the violence.

As police have taken a more get-tough approach here, it has caused a backlash: In February, 500 marched to protest the deaths of two black men in the custody of the Greenville Police Department. Experts say that, as in big cities like New York, zero-tolerance policing can help reduce crime but lead to other problems. "There's a broad feeling that [the police and the community] are not always on the same team," says Mr. Hyman.

In Victoria, Texas, a small Gulf Coast city, police in the early 1990s approached the crack trade in a big-city way: aggressively busting up drug rings and harassing troublesome parolees. But the effect has been akin to taking a bat to a wasp's nest. The city today is among the top 10 in the country in murder rankings per capita. "What happened was that we busted up a ring in a neighborhood and suddenly the activity spread all around the city," says Mr. Wyatt.

Even worse for many small cities, they often don't have the squad cars and beat cops to deal with rising crime. "Police agencies across the country are facing significant budget and manpower shortfalls," says Jeremy Wilson, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp. "This fact makes it even more important that they be strategic about how they expend and apply their limited resources."

Still, more and more community leaders - and the police themselves - realize that crime isn't just a law-enforcement issue. Here in Greenville, for instance, police will hold a seminar in September featuring Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a crime expert who has founded an institute around the theory of "killology." It tries to plumb community psychology and other factors behind the violence. In Victoria, Texas, Wyatt is trying working with local churches and community groups to help reduce the violence, something Savannah, Ga., did last year after the killing of a local rap star.

The US Department of Justice, too, is getting involved. Last week, it announced that it's sending 15 federal "impact teams" to help local police departments curb violent crime in cities like Greensboro, N.C.

"The irony is that small cities are now taking their cue from major metro areas in the US that have always been associated with terrible crime," says Levin. "Now those big cities are showing the way."

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