Oct. 4, 2006 12:00
20061004-news-0101
Crime is on the rise in Lafayette ' or is it?


Talk of rising crime in Lafayette reached a fevered pitch the weekend of Aug. 26, the day after 21-year-old Lafayette resident Nathan O'Neil Jr. walked into the Victoria's Secret in the Mall of Acadiana and shot and killed 21-year-old Sherika Broussard of Breaux Bridge. O'Neil was subsequently gunned down in the parking lot by an off-duty police officer.

The next day, in The Daily Advertiser, Cpl. Mark Francis of the Lafayette Police Department said the shooting was evidence of increasing violence in the city. "Lafayette is changing," he said. "We're starting to see more and more of these serious types of incidents week after week."

Shortly after the mall murder, Francis reiterated to The Independent Weekly that crime was on the rise in Lafayette but said the spike is primarily in property crimes. "As a matter of fact," he said, "for the most part, it's burglaries. We're getting a lot of residential daytime burglaries. We're dealing with a lot of car thefts. So, yeah, crime is on the rise."

Francis then stated that crime has followed a population increase in Lafayette. With some 20 vacancies in his department, he said there were too many officers working overtime to police the city effectively. "That's why we've been working very hard trying to fill the vacancies," he said, "and once we're able to do that, we need to go back to the council and ask for some additional people. We're going to need more resources to do what we need to do to police this city safely."

Discussion boards on The Daily Advertiser's Web site blamed New Orleans evacuees as part of the equation. One reader wrote: "Come on, as much as we all love New Orleans, everyone knows it has a high crime rate. That doesn't just go away ' it moves. Even if you leave the Katrina factor out of it, look at the statistics ' crime in Lafayette is on the rise, regardless of the reason."

Another reader stated: "In case you've been hiding in a cave somewhere since Katrina [and before], violent crime IS on the rise in Lafayette. I don't need to be politically correct, I do put a lot of blame on the influx of people from the New Orleans area."

A recent Times of Acadiana story carried this headline: "Police chief believes there's a correlation between population and crime." The article cited a spokesman for Claritas, a national marketing research firm, who stated the initial post-Katrina population of Lafayette was in decline. However, Interim Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft said he believed Lafayette's expanded population accounted for the increase in crime. As evidence, The Times cited police statistics for increased traffic citations and car accidents. The article ended by noting the vacancies within the police department and telling interested readers how to apply for a job on the force.

The Advertiser tempered its earlier reporting with a Sept. 2 article titled "Police: Crime under control." The paper's previous tone of violent crime running amok was changed to report some areas of crime were on the rise ' particularly rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, thefts and car thefts.

Every year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation publishes uniform crime statistics, compiled from data provided by 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation. The annual report Crime in the United States gives a snapshot of crime on both national and local levels. From 2001 until 2005, violent crime in Lafayette has been on the decline, falling from 1,045 to 991. Violent crime includes murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

According to the FBI's preliminary annual Uniform Crime Report for 2005, violent crime in the United States rose by 2.5 percent from 2004, while property crimes dropped 1.6 percent. As a whole, violent crime offenses reported to law enforcement in Lafayette dropped slightly in 2005 from the previous year, despite rumors of a rampant post-Katrina crime wave. Robberies fell from 163 in 2004 to 141 in 2005, and aggravated assaults dropped from 765 to 751. However, murders rose slightly from six to eight in 2005, and rapes increased from 86 to 91.

For the same time periods, property crimes also declined from 7,283 in 2004 to 6,233 in 2005. Burglaries fell from 1,332 to 1,125, and larceny and theft dropped from 5,546 to 4,688. There were 15 more car thefts in 2005 then in 2004 ' up from 405 to 420.

Comparing crime statistics provided by the Lafayette Police Department for the first six months of 2005 and 2006 gives some insight into the current state of Lafayette crime.

There were 79 rapes in the first half of 2006, compared with 46 for the first six months of 2005 and 91 for the entire year. In the same period for 2005, there were five murders and six murders for 2006. At the end of June 2006, there were 154 robberies, compared to 141 for the entire year of 2005. Assaults, theft, and burglaries have risen slightly, but auto thefts nearly doubled, jumping from 188 for the first six months in 2005 to 348 during the same period this year.

But it's impossible to blame increased crime on a larger population without reliable population figures. There are no definitive numbers on Lafayette's current population, much less the population pre- and post-Katrina. The last census figures come from 2000, and the next census is still four years away. Even stranger is that in the four months following Hurricane Katrina, crime didn't increase and was slightly lower than the previous eight months. "Following the storms," Francis says, "things really were quiet. Then right at the first of the year things accelerated."

George Wooddell, associate professor of sociology at UL Lafayette, and fellow professor Bob Grambling took a stab at determining Lafayette's population for a United Way of Acadiana survey, with mixed results. "We fought hard to try to get some kind of data that we could depend on in terms of the raw numbers," Wooddell says. "We fought FEMA. They have the information, but they won't release it. We finally dealt with the post office, asking them about changes of address. But to tell you the truth, we don't feel like we can depend on any of that.

"You can't know [if there's an] increase in crime, unless you know and compare it to the increase in population," Wooddell continues. "You've got raw numbers, but they can be deceptive."

Even population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau are unreliable. The 2005 American Community Survey lists pre-Katrina population figures for the Lafayette metropolitan statistical area (Lafayette and St. Martin parishes) at 223,068 and post Katrina at 233,861, an increase in population of more than 10,000 people. But the margin of error for both sets of numbers averages about 23,600.

John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., says the most recent data comes from postal changes of address. As of June 30, there were 7,121 households with New Orleans zip codes having their mail forwarded to Lafayette zip codes, suggesting an influx of anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people. Logan cautions that his numbers aren't precise and are only estimations.

Assuming those numbers are in the ballpark, Logan estimates Lafayette's population may have increased by upwards of 15 percent. "If the number of crimes went up in the last year by 15 percent, that would seem normal," he says. But Logan says that unless the crime rate (the number of crimes divided by the population ) has increased, crime isn't really on the rise. "In fact," he adds, "if the number of crimes went up less than the population, the real phenomenon to think about is a drop in the crime rate." And Logan doesn't consider Katrina a factor. "I would be cautious about any interpretation," he says, "including the Katrina one, without more clear evidence. What you have, and what the police have, is a list of possibilities but not enough information to favor any one of them."

Even Francis doesn't connect recent crime with New Orleans evacuees. "We know that we have more people in this city, but we can't say that [New Orleans evacuees] are responsible for X amount of crime," he says. "It's just too early to determine that at this point. We've had a few isolated incidents involving New Orleans residents. But to say that the bulk of what we're dealing with is New Orleans residents, we can't attribute that to that right now. We just don't have enough data at this point."

Even the police don't have any numbers on Lafayette's current population. "Nobody's been able to put a number on that," Francis says, addding that police are experiencing an average 10 percent increase in calls.

Without an accurate accounting of the population, the question of whether Lafayette's crime rate is rising or declining is unknown. "It's too early to determine exactly what we're dealing with," Francis says. "We've just been sounding the horn, saying this is what we've got."

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