Perception and reality

Published 9:29 pm Thursday, September 25, 2014

When it comes to public safety, perception trumps reality every single time. On the heels of the murder of a downtown businessman early Monday morning, the perception of safety for those who live and work within Suffolk’s core business district was bound to suffer.

When someone is shot on the sidewalk and left to die, it’s hard for those who live or work nearby to pretend that everything’s the same as it was the day before. Added to the sense of unease some had following a carjacking the previous weekend near the Kimberly area, Monday’s killing has created a real sense of concern for some downtown business owners.

Some employers are now bound to wonder whether it’s safe to ask an employee to stay that extra hour after dark; to consider whether parking behind their businesses, instead of along the street, is a prudent course of action; and to ponder whether to begin carrying firearms for protection. Some might even wonder whether it would be safer to do business somewhere else. And some husbands might think the risk of allowing a wife to work in the area outweighs the benefit of whatever paycheck she can expect each week.

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The likelihood that those sorts of discussions are taking place around kitchen tables and family rooms this week should give city officials reason for pause.

There has long been a perception by outsiders that downtown was an unsafe place. It was an unfair perception, and it turns out not to be wholly supported by the facts. According to statistics compiled by the city’s police department, year-to-date crime numbers for the downtown area are down from last year almost 20 percent for what are known as “Part 1” offenses — murder, aggravated assault, rape, robbery, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson. That’s better than the city as a whole, which is down 10 percent in the same offenses. And some nonviolent categories are down even more — like burglaries, which fell 41 percent downtown during the past year.

Officials also said concerns business owners have expressed about bicycle and foot patrols dwindling in recent years are another example of misperceptions. Those patrols are reserved “primarily for the holidays,” a police department spokesperson told news editor Tracy Agnew this week.

But Police Chief Thomas Bennett made kind of a big deal of the foot patrols in October 2009, when Agnew walked the downtown beat with a couple of officers, one of whom told her, “Just mere police presence in any area would deter some crime.” Bennett noted the approval of downtowners for the program. “I’ve gotten a few letters and a few calls from mostly merchants, but one or two citizens too,” he said at the time. “They’re all positive, thanking us for having officers down there.”

Perception trumps reality, except when the reality seems to confirm the perception. If Suffolk officials want to do something to change the perception regarding downtown safety, they should do more than recite statistics.