Perception heightens Albany's crime issues

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY -- The most recent crime statistics compiled by the Albany Police Department show that 2009 had some of the lowest property and overall crime numbers of the last 23 years.

In fact, the 4,801 total reported property crimes in Albany was a lower total than every year from 1987 to 2009 except 2001 and 2003. And the 5,579 overall reported crimes in 2009 was a lower total than every year in that period but 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005.

Still, Albany's reputation as a crime-ridden city persists, leaving many residents and officials to contend that the community has a perception problem to go along with the real crime issues it faces.

"I have two uncles, and, yes, they're older, but they insist that downtown Albany will never make it back because crime is rampant in the city," lifetime resident Tina Harden said. "I don't feel afraid here, in fact I think it's a shame that Albany is seen that way by so many people because it's a lot better place than you hear.

"But it's easy to see why people might have such an impression. You have vagrants walking around the city, folks hanging out at the Drey Line, and the perception is that if these people aren't working for a living, they must be stealing. And if people are stealing, the city must be filled with crime."

Such a perception makes the job of those who sell the city that much tougher. Ted Clem, who has been president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission for a little more than a year, said the community suffers from what he calls "low self-esteem," even though it has plenty to offer.

"The selling points for this community are the same ones that convinced my wife and me to come here: good climate, low cost of living, abundant natural resources, a friendly, diverse population," Clem, who moved to Albany from Panama City, said. "It's a great community, a great place to raise a family.

"But that old saying about perception becoming reality applies here. Albany's reputation regionally is not that good because of the perception many have. The truth is, though, this city is not that different from most other places its size in the Deep South."

Clem and other officials say the local media play a large role in creating a perception of lawlessness in Albany.

"I hesitate to blame the media, but sometimes I question the newsworthiness of some of the stories I see," he said. "I understand that we're dealing with a smaller media market here, but the emphasis that is given some of the stories seems to be a bit much.

"Plus, we have a tendency at times to keep shooting ourselves in the foot. For example, there were 30 CEOs of major businesses here for the (annual Georgia) Quail Hunt, and while they were here that brouhaha over the school superintendent was all over the news."

Catherine Glover, who has served as president/CEO of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce for the past 16 months, agrees with Clem's assessment.

"Albany is a great place, with a strong quality of life, so it's not a tough product to sell," Glover, who came to Albany from Maine by way of Binghamton, N.Y., said. "But the twists that the crime stories receive from the local newspapers, TV stations and radio broadcasts help to create a perception that crime is a bigger problem than it actually is here.

"I'm not downplaying the crime that does exist, but our problems here are very much like those of any other comparably sized city. I strongly believe, though, that the media in a place like Albany have an impactive influence on everything they report, good, bad or indifferent. And when they overemphasize the crime aspect, that's more that we must overcome."

Glover said she and her staff at the Chamber combat the negative perception by selling the city's assets.

"We have the world's best plantations, Fortune 500 companies, great weather, a well-trained diverse work force, a great history ... and we've got water (the Flint River) flowing through us," she said. "We combat all the negative with the facts; we leverage our assets. But we sometimes have to slip into almost guerilla marketing mode ... It takes 10 positives to have an impact on every one negative."

Albany City Manager Alfred Lott has lived, among other places, in the Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. areas. Albany, he says, compares very favorably crimewise to such major metroplitan areas.

"Actually, I've found Albany to be a rather quiet and safe community," Lott said. "There are pockets of crime here, sure, but it's certainly not as widespread as it's perceived to be. I think when you look at the crime statistics here, they compare favorably with other parts of the country."

Lott acknowledges, though, that Albany has a perception problem. And he too says the media is partially to blame.

"It seems that every crime of any significance is reported in a significant fashion and then amplified," Lott said. "Every crime receives an awful lot of attention, and because of that people perceive that we're much more dangerous than we are.

"Our police department does a good job of catching criminals here; our capture rate exceeds the national average. But when we capture criminals and lock them up, that fact is smothered by the coverage of the fact that the crime occurred. We are taking steps now to hopefully amplify the solving of crimes."

A number of attempts by Herald reporters to speak with Albany Police Department Chief John Proctor for this report were unsuccessful.

While most citizens in the community agree that Albany's perception problem is on a par with its actual crime issues, mayoral candidate Kirk Smith, an ardent anti-crime activist, emphatically discounts the perception-over-reality concept.

"We have a serious crime problem, and it's puzzling to me that our elected officials don't see that," Smith, a local businessman, said. "The people who live here see it, and the fact that our elected officials don't shows that we have a leadership problem.

"Our leaders here are good at throwing up smokescreens. When something good happens, they'll put on their coat and tie and smile real big for the TV cameras. But when something bad happens, they scatter like roaches. We've got to get people in office willing to take a stand against corruption."

(Tomorrow: How does Albany combat its crime issues, real and perceived?)