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Josh Bergeron: Lasting change on crime will require ongoing, holistic work

For many long-term goals, there’s never a finite end.

Economic development requires luring new businesses to town and supporting existing ones. Those short- and medium-term goals help improve the vitality of a community, add jobs, bring private investment to town and, in turn, improve public services. But a national downturn or significant local closure can reverse hard-earned gains.

There are similar possibilities with goals like improving a community’s health, boosting educational outcomes and reducing crime. Ensuring a city like Salisbury or Rowan County is a good place to live requires an ongoing, holistic effort.

For now, however, there’s reason to celebrate in Salisbury because of reductions in violent crime. In a story published Friday (Crime numbers down; investigations more complex), Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes said preliminary numbers show a 46% reduction in assaults with a firearm from 2018 to 2019, and a 15% or 16% reduction in overall violent crime.

There were six homicides in Salisbury in 2018 and four in 2019. Credit for that progress, in large part, goes to Stokes, Deputy Chief Shon Barnes and the officers of the Salisbury Police Department. There’s also credit deserved for community programs that mentor young men and women and an improved economy. Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ renewal designation, if successful, will improve educational outcomes in our community and further improve crime statistics.

But numbers fluctuate, a reality that Capt. Chad Moose, leader of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Division, pointed to in the same story.

“Murders are generally a crime of anger or passion and hard to predict or prevent,” Moose said. “The numbers go up and down every year since I’ve run (the Criminal Investigations Division) and have always jumped around.”

Stokes, himself, predicted in Friday’s story that crime rates would increase. Though, even if other forms of crime decrease, the public will perceive things are worse in Salisbury if there are more shooting deaths or if there are multiple incidents in a short period.

The police department will not be able to prevent increases in crime, but it must be able to solve cases and have strong connections to community organizations who can deter people from criminal activity. By communicating accurate information, it can also help with incorrect perceptions.

Some of the work by the Salisbury Police Department shines as a good example of setting a foundation for the future — when violent crime rates could shift upward.

The department has worked to understand what’s at the heart of local gun violence and reviewed trends in reported crime. The creation of a Regional Crime Intelligence Center at the Salisbury Police Department will be an important resource. It has also leaned on national, state and local partners for help and established a citywide security camera network.

For any organization, including the police department, there’s always work to do in the areas of transparency and public relations, which doesn’t just involve the media. Police departments must go beyond providing routine crime reports and responding to media inquiries. Social media tends to run wild in the event of a shooting; the nickname “Shotzbury” will reemerge any time there’s a string of them. While police won’t be able to shake the city’s name, they can help by providing timely, accurate information. Media like the Post, naturally, also must sort fact from fiction.

With three reported shootings on Friday alone, 2020 isn’t off to a great start for gun violence, but there are many days to come in the year and reasons to be optimistic because of the good leadership in place at the department and its ongoing work to proactively police the community rather than only respond to calls.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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