Crime stats show some areas get more than their share of troubles

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 8, 2011

By Shelley Smith
In 2010, Rowan County law enforcement agencies were plagued with copper thefts, drug offenses and break-ins targeting homes and businesses — the most popular crimes among criminals living in the county and those passing through.
Though murder numbers increased from 2009, other violent crimes were down across the city and parts of the county last year. But nonviolent crimes, such as the break-ins and thefts, as well as drug offenses, increased in several areas.
While some areas continue to be trouble spots — especially for violence — Salisbury has seen overall crime numbers fall the past several years, from 5,397 in 2008 to 4,322 last year.
And overall crime numbers dropped in several sections of the county, though total numbers increased to 3,545 last year from 3,372 in 2009 and 3,131 in 2008.
Most of the crime that’s happening is concentrated around Interstate 85, with nearly all crimes in 2010 taking place within a 1-mile radius of the interstate.
“People are transient,” Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said recently. “We are intersected with I-85, Highway 70, U.S. 52, and Old Concord Road parallels with I-85.”
Auten said one factor hindering investigators trying to solve these crimes is they don’t know if the criminals are from out of town or live in the community.
In 2010, Auten said, authorities arrested more out-of-town criminals than locals.
Transient bad guys keep the Salisbury Police Department busy too, targeting mainly businesses along I-85 and U.S. 29.
Salisbury Police Sgt. Brian Stallings said any community along an interstate in North Carolina has seen an increase in crime.
But it’s not just visiting criminals. Locals still tie up each law enforcement agency with the usual break-in or drug possession offense, and the occasional robbery.
Crime in the city
Violent crime was at its worst in Salisbury in 2006 and 2007, but has generally declined over the past several years. Violent crimes include arsons, aggravated assaults, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, murders, rapes and robberies.
In 2010, the Salisbury Police Department investigated six murders, the highest in the past five years. There were numerous armed robberies along East Innes Street, as well as several stabbings.
But in four of the five Salisbury neighborhoods with the most crime overall in 2010, violent crime has decreased since 2005.
The Park Avenue community, for example, had the highest number of crimes among Salisbury neighborhoods last year, and it had the most violent crimes, a distinction it has held the past five years.
The 40 violent crimes there last year were up slightly from 38 in 2009 but represented the second-lowest number in the past six years.
The hot summer months of 2010 seemed to be the busiest for the community, with numerous assaults involving knives and guns, and sexual assaults such as rapes.
Most crimes in the Park Avenue neighborhood occurred on North Shaver Street, Park Avenue, North Long Street, East Cemetery Street and East Lafayette Street.
However, Salisbury Police Lt. Shelia Lingle said residents who have moved into the neighborhood over the last several years have made a difference in reducing crime.
“They’ve really taken it upon themselves to clean up that neighborhood,” she said. “They’ve chosen to make it a viable place again.”
Garth Birdsey and C.J. Peters are two of those residents.
Birdsey has lived on Park Avenue since 2001. Peters moved into the neighborhood in June 2007 and started a neighborhood watch by the end of the year, he said, “basically out of fear.”
After watching drug deals and prostitution at the corner of Park Avenue and North Shaver Street, they decided to change things.
“Anytime we saw anything at all, we’d call” police, Peters said. “We started calling a lot. Started calling constantly.
“We started figuring out who was holding (drugs) by their signs, their whistle and the way they threw their arms up.”
Peters and Birdsey say the police have been “wonderful.”
“I’d say eight out of 10 times, they were here within five minutes,” Peters said. “They investigated anything and everything. They encouraged us and worked with us.”
“It’s a dramatic difference,” Birdsey said. “It used to be that I could walk out on the corner and there would be someone doing something illegal within 20 minutes. I’ve lived in other transient neighborhoods in other cities, and the police here are probably at least 200 percent better than other places.”
“I feel a lot safer,” Peters said. “I can walk up and down the streets and I’m not worried I’m going to get mugged. That’s a big relief.
“People know to stay away.”
Although residents and police have improved Park Avenue, problems still exist a few blocks away on East Cemetery Street, and, police say, at the Wilco Hess gas station and convenience store at 500 E. Innes St.
Crime in the county
The Rowan Sheriff’s Office divides the county into eight zones, and each zone has its own reputation when it comes to criminal activity. Three of the zones, though, are hotter than the others.
In 2010, Zone 1 — which includes East Spencer and Granite Quarry — had the highest number of crimes, according to Sheriff’s Office statistics.
Over the last three years, Zones 3 and 4 have averaged the most crimes, Auten said. Zone 3 is located in the southern part of the county, along the Cabarrus County line, with U.S. 52 and Old Concord Road as its borders. Zone 4, adjacent to Zone 3, is sectioned off by Old Concord Road, Grace Church Road, Patterson Road and Weaver Road.
Zone 4 sees mostly break-ins and larcenies, Auten said. And because I-85 cuts through the center, businesses and homes along the interstate are criminals’ main targets.
“There’s a multitude of ways to get around,” Auten said, “and I think some of it is probably bleed-over from the Charlotte area.”
Zone 3 in southern Rowan also has break-ins and larcenies, but drugs are a big problem as well.
Auten, who worked narcotics cases for years, said solving drug cases can be easy or difficult, depending on where informants are.
“Sometimes you just end up working in an area hotter than others,” Auten said. He noted a big increase in citizen involvement in southern Rowan has led to arrests in that area.
“People know what belongs in their neighborhood and what doesn’t,” he said. “By reporting that, a lot of times they (residents) can stop a crime before it happens.
“I know a lot of people are scared to get involved sometimes, but it’s good to speak up for your neighbors.”
“We’d rather people call us and us go out and it be nothing,” Lt. John Sifford said.
Although the East Spencer-Granite Quarry area saw an increase this year, Auten and Sifford say Zone 7 — the Cleveland area, including U.S. 70, U.S. 601 and Foster and Needmore roads — has been a problem for many years.
Needmore and Foster roads are the “hottest spots” for drug activity in the county, Auten said, with crack cocaine among the biggest sellers.
“That area had a reputation from Troutman, Statesville, multiple counties,” he said. “We did a project up there, and about 80 percent of the tags were from out of county.”
Auten and Sifford said drug activity there has slowed down, but has not disappeared.
“We don’t know how it really came to be such a problem,” Auten said. “Those guys weren’t the sophisticated drug dealers we see. A lot of them were users that sold enough to get by.”
Break-ins, copper theft
Even though break-ins are reported every day across the county, Rowan law enforcement agencies agree property crimes seem to be slowing down.
Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins said he believes the decrease is due to the economy — people are out of work and at home during the day.
“There’s easier ways of stealing,” Deputy Chief Steve Whitley said.
Lingle, the police lieutenant, said stealing copper — where criminals most often risk only a misdemeanor charge — is easier to get away with and less traceable than break-ins and larcenies, which could carry felony charges.
That’s not stopping some groups of criminals. For the Sheriff’s Office, break-ins are spread out and move across the county in no particular pattern or order. It depends on the area a thief or group of thieves decide to target.
For example, break-ins were happening frequently in the southeastern part of the county for awhile, but stopped once the criminals were caught, Detective Chad Moose said. Then break-ins picked up on the west side of the county. Investigators caught that group, and, again, the break-ins stopped.
“A couple of years ago they were pretty much local guys,” Moose said of people breaking into homes and businesses. “Our last couple of big groups doing the break-ins were out of Charlotte and Concord.”
Staff Sgt. Jason Owens and Moose say the stolen property from break-ins gets spread out from crack houses in Concord all the way to Charlotte. The break-ins happen while people are at work.
“Those people from Concord or Charlotte spend all day from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m.” in their targeted areas, Owens said.
“A lot of our calls come in after 5 p.m., when people come home,” Moose said.
Moose and Owens said break-ins are more widespread in the county because there are so many places thieves can target, but they still saw fewer in 2010 than in previous years.
Thefts of copper, on the other hand, won’t decrease anytime soon, authorities say.
Copper thefts were a big problem in 2010 and have increased over the past several years, with agencies investigating copper thefts almost daily during the summer months last year.
Copper thefts increase or decrease based on how easy it is to get rid of the copper, said Shulenburger, the Salisbury police detective.
“Precious metals have always been a commodity, kind of ebb and flow with the economy,” added Whitley, the deputy police chief. “They’ve always stolen copper.”
Stallings said the theft of copper is all about opportun-ity. “It’s everywhere,” he said.
The same goes for the sheriff’s office.
“Copper theft rises with the price of copper,” Moose said.
And some thieves specialize in copper.
“Criminals, they have a niche,” Owens said. Catalytic converter thieves are another example, he said.
“He’ll get arrested and be in prison for two years, and then there are no thefts for those two years. As soon as he gets out, the crimes come back.”
Moose and Owens said that solving one crime can stop a string of crimes, but unless there is a key witness, the crimes are hard to connect to one person or group of people.
Budget challenges
Law enforcement agencies across the state are facing budget cuts, which means they’re not getting additional officers to handle increasing workloads, which are not just crime-related. The Sheriff’s Office serves 35,000 civil papers a year, and foreclosures and executions are at an all-time high, Auten said.
Eight positions have been cut in the past two years, but that doesn’t ease the workload or deter criminals.
“We just try to cut where we can and not lose services,” he said. “You have to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
Auten said not having school resource officers is what he notices the most.
“It hurts the schools, but also hurts the patrol zones,” he said. Knox Middle School in Salisbury is currently the only middle school with a school resource officer.
The Salisbury Police Department has not faced cuts like the Sheriff’s Office, but the police chief said that as crime and call volumes continue to rise, he would not turn down additional officers.
“I think overall we’re keeping up fairly well,” Collins said.
Contact reporter Shelley Smith at 704-797-4246.