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Thursday June 8th

Violent crimes in spotlight in Chapel Hill, despite a lower crime rate

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Data show a dip in violent crime off campus since 2011. On campus, reports of violent crime have increased from four incidents in 2010 to nine incidents in 2013.

UNC’s director of public safety Jeff McCracken said with services like Alert Carolina, information about violence has become more accessible, creating more awareness of the crimes that occur.

The problem of violent crime is becoming more visible after a string of high-profile homicides in the past several years, including those of UNC pharmacy professor Feng Liu and students Faith Hedgepeth and Eve Carson.

Robert Conder Jr., a neuropsychologist at Duke Raleigh Hospital and a UNC parent, said he thinks Chapel Hill isn’t as safe as it used to be.

“I always thought Chapel Hill was a safe place, and I love Chapel Hill,” Conder said. “Before this, we felt it was very safe. You would not have to take precautions.”

Due to the perceived increase in violent crimes, Conder said residents and students should be more aware of their surroundings.

“I’m walking down Franklin Street, and I’m scanning the environment,” he said. “I think that’s a fact of modern life.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the key is to think about the crimes in context.

“This is not particularly satisfying, but in relation to other communities, we are a generally safe town,” he said.

A concerned community

Conder sent an email to Kleinschmidt, McCracken, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue on Aug. 9 in response to the killing of UNC professor Feng Liu.

Liu died in July after being badly beaten during a robbery in Chapel Hill’s Westwood neighborhood.

“The professor was murdered at a place where I used to live,” Conder said.

He said he was not reassured when Kleinschmidt and Blue said police officers patrolling — known as community policing — would be sufficient to stop violent crimes.

Kleinschmidt said the town’s highest priority is community safety.

“We’ve had a great relationship with UNC and the work that we do together to respond to violent crimes and to finding perpetrators and apprehending them,” he said. “But of course one violent crime is one too many, and I think at the end of the day, I am proud that we are able to respond as quick as we are.”

Conder said his family watched two or three men drinking wine on Franklin Street for more than an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

“There were absolutely no police to be seen,” he said. “And I think that gives the wrong message to criminals and to people who are thinking about doing crimes.”

UNC junior Tuong Nguyen said he saw similar incidents on Franklin Street and is now cautious of who he is near and where and when he walks down the street.

“This type of behavior now appears to be accepted by the governance of the town of Chapel Hill,” Conder said in his email to the town and University officials.

But Kleinschmidt said the town is not a gated community.

“I’m made more uncomfortable often when I see students who are drinking too much instead of men drinking on a bench,” Kleinschmidt said. “No community is going to place a police officer every 10 feet on a street. We can’t just stand around to watch them to do something.”

Michael Teague, a forensic psychologist in Raleigh, said the University and the area near campus lack security consciousness.

“It might be a free environment for the University, but it’s also a free environment for the criminals, and people don’t think about that,” he said.

College town targets

Teague, who worked as a psychological profiler for violent crimes with the Raleigh Police Department for 10 years, said that when it comes to violent crimes, college towns in general are unsafe.

“They target rich areas because there is a lot of young, naive people who are coming from maybe overprotective parents, and they want to be on their own,” he said.

Between 2009 and 2012, there were 20 violent crimes — including murder, rape, robbery and assault — reported on UNC’s campus.

During that same period at the University of Virginia, there were 37 violent crimes reported — including murder, manslaughter, sex offense, robbery and aggravated assault.

Nguyen said students should look out for themselves off campus, especially at night.

“I usually go with a group of people because I feel a little more guarded when I’m walking down the street by myself,” Nguyen said.

“But it’s still a little dangerous walking down the street without lights. I feel scared when there are no lights, no people, no cars.”

McCracken and Blue said there are no specific areas where violent crimes occur more often.

“The tragedy of Professor Liu’s homicide illustrates that very clearly,” Blue said. “That’s one of those incidents where you really wish an officer had been on that corner before that happened, but it’s difficult to be at as many places as we want to be.”

Increasing awareness

With Alert Carolina, information about violent incidents has become more accessible.

McCracken said students used to learn about crimes from newspapers and television stations. But now, all of that information is easily available online, he said.

“This new way of receiving information makes it seem like there’s been an increase, but there has not been,” he said.

Kleinschmidt said it’s the rarity of violent crimes in town that brings more attention to them.

“Whenever a violent crime occurs here in Chapel Hill, it is rare enough that it becomes a larger piece of the news than it would in other places, as it should,” he said.

Community policing

Blue said the Chapel Hill Police Department’s staffing levels have been consistent in recent years.

“You are seeing the same presence and, if not more, particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to downtown,” he said. “I think our presence and coverage in the neighborhoods is doing better than it’s ever been.”

Blue said it is difficult to be in many places at once.

“We think that we are doing some very positive, visible patrols, but that doesn’t mean everybody is going to see those in as satisfying a way as they would like,” he said.

But Teague said community policing won’t stop certain violent crimes.

“I’m all for community policing, but to say that it’s going to stop rapes, I’m not sure it was ever designed to do that,” Teague said.

Blue said police are tasked with keeping the community safe, but there are things residents should do to help.

“We want to remind folks that calling 911 is hardly ever a bad thing, even if it turns out that what led to your 911 call turns out to be unfounded,” he said.

McCracken said if students see any suspicious activity on campus, they should call the Department of Public Safety.

“The chances are that if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t,” he said.

McCracken said students should download the school’s new safety app, Rave Guardian, to have quick access to campus police.

Kleinschmidt said it’s important to keep these crimes in perspective.

“I think that it is a natural response when a violent crime does occur. It shakes all of us,” he said. “I think people can take comfort when they move from place to place together, when they go to places where everyone wants to go. Because a lot of people are there, it ensures a higher degree of safety.”

Teague suggested people take precautions, like watching their surroundings, locking doors and not walking alone at night.

“It always takes some of these egregious episodes for people to say we really got to be more serious about that,” Teague said.


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