Aiken County followed a statewide trend in 2011 of a higher number of murders; however, the county's overall violent crime rate saw a slight uptick, according to a report released this week by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division.
There were 11 murders in Aiken County in 2011, up from six in 2010, according to the Uniform Crime Report. The total number of violent crimes increased slightly, from 591 in 2010 to 609 in 2011.
Based on estimated population increases, the county's overall violent crime rate increase from 36.9 crimes per 10,000 people in 2010 to 37.9 in 2011, according to the report.
South Carolina saw 322 murders in 2011, up from 265 in 2010. Statewide, violent crime decreased by 1.1 percent in 2011, from 28,197 crimes in 2010 to 27,883 in 2011.
The crime rate is determined by dividing the number of crimes by the population and multiplying that number by 10,000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in Aiken County in 2010 was 160,099.
“If the population estimate changes, that would affect how the rate is calculated,” said Rob McManus, coordinator of planning and research for the State Justice Statistics Program at the S.C. Department of Public Safety.
Aiken County had 65 reported rapes in 2011, up from 54 in 2010, according to the report. Robberies also increased to 138 in 2011 from 131 the year before. Aggravated assaults decreased from 400 to 395.
Rapes also increased across the state by 6 percent, according to the report.
Aiken County reported between nine and 11 murders from 2005 to 2009, according to previous reports. In 2010, that number dipped to six, and climbed to 11 again in 2011.
The Aiken Department of Public Safety reported one murder each for 2010 and 2011, while the number of murders reported by the Aiken County Sheriff's Office doubled from five in 2010 to 10 in 2011, according to the report.
Capt. Troy Elwell, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said the office's murder rate usually fluctuates.
“It's impossible to pinpoint the reason behind this,” he said. “Robberies, on the other hand, are mostly drug related. Although the Sheriff's Office has taken a hard stand on drugs, the simple fact is that we are outnumbered. But we will not give up the fight.”
Violent crime in the state and nation rose from 1975 until the mid-1990s and has decreased since, with the exception of some ebb and flow, the report stated. South Carolina's violent crime rate has exceeded the national crime rate every year since 1975, including 2011, with a rate of 59.6 violent crimes per 10,000 people compared to the national rate of 38.6.
“On the state and national level, although crime may have bumped up in certain categories, 2009 to 2011 have represented some pretty large decreases in violent crime,” McManus said. “When you get these small bumps, the larger pattern over the last several years has been one of marked decrease in virtually every category of crime.”
He pointed out that a news story this week highlighted the 20 percent increase in the state's murder rate. “What they failed to mention was that 20 percent increase was after a very large decrease,” McManus said.
Making a comparison
Beaufort County has a similar population to Aiken – 162,233, according to the 2010 Census. In 2011, Beaufort County had 843 violent crimes for a rate of 51.2 crimes per 100,000 people compared to Aiken's 609 crimes and rate of 37.9.
The number of violent crimes in Beaufort decreased in 2011 from 925 in 2010, according to the report.
Additionally, Beaufort County reported five murders each for 2010 and 2011. Rapes increased by one to 28 in 2011 and robberies increased from 144 to 150.
Aggravated assaults in Beaufort County went down from 749 in 2010 to 660 in 2011, as did burglaries from 1,427 to 1,356.
'Use caution' when making inferences
Doug Kuck, a sociologist with a specialization in criminology, and chair of the sociology department at USC Aiken, said residents must use caution before making inferences based on crime data changes from one year to another.
“At least several years of trend data are necessary before even starting to infer any patterns,” he said.
Kuck added that it's important to remember that the data in the report reflect “what crime law enforcement agencies know about, record and then report.”
“Any upward or downward change in crime statistics may not be reflecting any change in actual crime, but could be just as much a result of changes in police patrol practices, victims' willingness to report instances, how law enforcement officers and agencies define and categorize the crimes, as well as changes in the efficiency and accuracy of recording and reporting the figures,” he said.
Arrests not a good barometer
South Carolina's violent crime arrests decreased 9.1 percent from 10,287 in 2010 to 9,459 in 2011, according to the report.
In 2011, Aiken County had 16 arrests for murder, 10 for rape, 46 for robbery, 123 for aggravated assault, 144 for burglary and 800 for drugs and drug violations, according to the report.
The number of arrests, though, is not a good barometer for the amount of crime in a community, Kuck said.
“It's probably the worst indicator,” he said. “The second worst is the police data that you are reporting on. Law enforcement numbers reflect only what law enforcement knows about. Most crime comes to its attention not through police detection, but through victim or witness reports – mostly victims.”
According to Kuck, only 38 to 40 percent of “victimizations” are reported to police. Of those, police clear about 22 percent – nearly all through arrest, but some suspects die or leave the country, Kuck said.
“You can have several people arrested for one murder, and you can have multiple murders and have one or even no one arrested,” said McManus. “You have to take them in the context of the individual event, particularly at the county level.”
Sgt. Jake Mahoney, a spokesman for Aiken Public Safety, said the factors contributing to an increase in murders are not clear.
“However, we do recognize that the increase requires proactive and directed efforts to keep these numbers from climbing or even reaching the 2011 numbers again,” he said. Mahoney said The Safe Communities Initiative, based on the High Point, N.C., violent crime reduction program, was put in place locally to help control an increase in violent crime. “(It) is a proactive step to keep the Aiken community safe and prevent violent crimes,” he said.
The premise of the initiative is that a small number of offenders are responsible for a large percentage of the crime in a community.
Under the initiative, chronic violent offenders are identified based on their present and past criminal activities and are invited to a “call-in” with law enforcement officials and community members. There, they are “put on notice” and told the effects of the crimes they are committing, and that they face harsher penalties and an expedited trial if they re-offend.
The offenders are given a list of resources and options available to them from community members and organizations.
High Point, N.C., which at one point was known as “Little Chicago” because of its high violent crime rate, has seen a 54 percent decrease in that rate since 1990, while the population rose from 75,000 to 107,000.
Aiken held its first call-in in January, which included a panel of representatives from various local law enforcement agencies, as well as state and national agencies.
“Law enforcement agencies that work together in a community have a synergistic effect,” Mahoney said. “The combining of resources, personnel and information is beneficial to the entire law enforcement community and the citizens we serve. By working together, we can do so much more as a team than as individual departments or agencies.”
Elwell said crime is a countywide problem.
“That's why it's so important we work together to keep the criminals in check. Criminals don't know any boundaries,” he said. “We encourage the citizens to become involved in their communities and to be our eyes and ears to issues that we may not be aware of. Our community services division is always looking to implement new programs to ensure the safety of the citizens of Aiken County.”
Editor's note: This version of this story has been changed to update numbers on the Aiken County violent crime rate. The Aiken Standard regrets the error.