Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Serious crime leaps 19.4% downtown


But incidents on slower pace than in 1997

By Randy Tucker rtucker@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Downtown Cincinnati has seen a spike in serious crime during the first four months of 2002, threatening to further damage the city's image.

        Serious crime — including robbery, assault and auto theft — rose 19.4 percent in Cincin nati's central business district and riverfront from January through April, compared to the same 2001 period.

        Citywide this year, the increase was 8.4 percent, an Enquirer analysis of Cincinnati Police data shows.

Rapes, robberies lead upswing

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        Still, reports of serious crime are on pace to be far lower than five years ago, and many residents and downtown workers say they feel very safe even at night in the central business district.

        “I'm not scared to walk downtown at night because I think I might be raped, but that kind of news (crime statistics) is a little unsettling,” said Nancy Farmer, a claims adjuster for a downtown insurance company.

        Nationwide, violent crime has been escalating in most metropolitan areas. Cincinnati's homicide rate has nearly doubled in 2002, compared with the same 2001 period, but that crime is not plaguing the central business district, statistics show.

        Crimes against people — specifically rape and robbery — led the increase downtown, with 10 rapes during those four months, versus two in the same 2001 period.

        Robberies rose 63 percent — from 35 to 57 — during the same period.

        In addition to heightened safety concerns for downtown residents and workers, the new crime numbers raise eyebrows among tourism officials.

        They're already struggling to attract visitors to a city whose image was tarnished by nationwide coverage of the April 2001 riots, allegations of police misconduct and a citywide boycott called by black activists.

        Hotel occupancy rates — one of the best indicators of a healthy tourism industry — were lower in Greater Cincinnati in 2001, at just over 50 percent, than any large metropolitan region in the United States, according to Smith Travel Research, a Tennessee-based firm that tracks the hospitality industry.

        An increase in crime downtown — the center of tourist activity with a convention center, hotels, restaurants, two stadiums, and 80,000 workers and visitors each day — could hinder recovery and spell trouble during the busy summer tourism season.

        “If crime statistics are up, it's possible that that could have an impact on people's decision to come to Greater Cincinnati,” said Julie Harrison Calvert, communications director for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau.

        “A lot of the perception surveys we do show that safety is one of the top concerns of people coming into Greater Cincinnati,” she said. “Certainly there is already a perception that exists that downtown is not safe.”

        The total number of serious crimes downtown rose from 550 during the first four months of 2001 to 657 through April this year.

        By comparison, the much ma ligned Over-the-Rhine neighborhood just north of downtown — with its reputation for drugs, gangs and violence — reported 50 fewer serious crime reports through April, police data show.

        But Cincinnati's downtown crime stats, while cause for concern, are not unusual for downtown areas and are not necessarily the best indication of how safe Cincinnati is, said Cincinnati Police spokesman Lt. Kurt Byrd.

        “Crime stats by themselves just don't tell you everything,” Lt. Byrd said.

        He cited the stabbing death in March of a Northern Kentucky woman on West Fourth Street as an example of how deceiving crime statistics can be.

        The homicide — which police call a planned attack against 37-year-old Cheryl Dawson by her estranged husband, Robin Dawson — meant there was one murder during the first four months of this year, versus none in the same period last year.

        “That (Ms. Dawson's death) was a tragedy, but it was not a random act of violence that would indicate downtown has a murder problem,” Lt. Byrd said.

        Cincinnati lawyer Bob Manley is a downtown resident and member of a volunteer surveillance team that has monitored crime downtown from rooftops and parking lots since 1993. He also believes the crime statistics are misleading.

        “You can't look at aggregate crime numbers and tell anything about a particular neighborhood,” Mr. Manley said. “The biggest crime downtown that we see is car break-ins. You're probably in greater danger of being assaulted in the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall than you are downtown.”

        Anastasia Mileham, spokeswoman for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI), agrees that downtown Cincinnati is “safer than most people think.”

        But “people's perception of safety isn't necessarily reality,” Ms. Mileham said. “The perception of safety is something we need to address in terms of marketing and continuing to attract people downtown.”

        DCI, which promotes downtown for property owners that make up the Downtown Cincinnati Improvement District, has launched several marketing campaigns in recent months to combat negative images of downtown.

        Tourism specialists say all it would take is a few well-publicized crimes to keep people away and sink downtown's burgeoning renaissance, including a state-funded theatrical complex, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and new professional baseball and football stadiums — back into the dark ages.

        Said Peter Tarlow, a Texas A&M University tourism specialist, “Tourism is based on perception rather than reality. People don't go to a place they think is unsafe, but they won't necessarily go someplace because it's safe.”

       



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