Studies give conflicting views of city


Staff Writer

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Rocky Mount is either one of the safest cities in North Carolina or one of the worst places to raise a child in the United States, depending on which recent study is to be believed.

Rocky Mount is listed as the 18th safest city in the state by Safe Home, an organization that ranks home security systems. City officials pointed out the positive score in a press release last week.

Conversely, a study released in August by 24/7 Wall St., an organization that provides analysis to equity investors, ranked Rocky Mount as the 13th worst city in America in which to raise a child. That report wasn't promoted by the city.

Studies of this type from third-party business websites pop up from time to time with differing methodologies and varied results based on cherry-picked statistics.

Safe Home assigns a safety score to each city in North Carolina with a population of 28,000 or more. Scores are based on FBI crime data, which the city confirmed is self-reported. Cities that have a decline in crime are also given a higher safety score, the organization notes. The report uses self-reported crime data from 2014 and 2015 to determine whether crime trends are rising or falling, the Safe Home website states.

“We are excited about this recent ranking,” said City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney in a statement originally attributed to Mayor David Combs. “For quite some time, we have been educated about the community policing efforts that Chief James Moore has led the Rocky Mount Police Department in implementing and some which he has continued in a different, unique way. While I, along with the Rocky Mount City Council, acknowledge there is more work to do, we believe these efforts are showing our commitment in making this city a much safer community. This incremental progress is indicative in studies like this one completed by Safe Home.”

Safe Home also examines the ratio of law enforcement officers to a community’s population. According to the report, Rocky Mount has a population of 55,978 and has a citizen-to-officer ratio of 280. However, current information from the city indicates its number of police officers is 160, which is a citizen-to-officer ratio of 350, based on the same population figure.

Safe Home also considers other demographic metrics such as population density, population trends, unemployment rate, median income and education level that are sometimes correlated to crime. The organization said these measures have a small impact on the Safety Score.

As far as the 24/7 Wall St. report, Rocky Mount scores low due to several factors including preschool enrollment.

“Preschool can be beneficial for children’s cognitive and social development, and in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, parents are far less likely to enroll their 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool programs,” the study found. “Only about a third of all children this age in the metro area are in preschool, well below the 47.6 percent share of children nationwide.”

The report also cites underfunding of the school district as one of the reasons behind their ranking.

“Metro area schools may also be underfunded. The Nash-Rocky Mount school district spends only about $8,400 per pupil annually, about $2,300 less than is typical one nationwide,” the report states.

The report based its ranking on preschool enrollment figures of 33.4 percent, the graduation rate of 82 percent, the population with access to areas for activity at 53 percent and the 2015 violent crime rate of 423 per 100,000, which was considerably above the average national rate of 373 violent crimes per 100,000, according to the report.

Safe Home, which states on its website that it works to make communities safer by providing a variety of tips and reports, ranked Rocky Mount in its top 25 safest cities in the state based primarily on a reported decrease in Rocky Mount’s violent and property crimes.

A Telegram investigation this summer revealed crimes in the city have been underreported to state and federal authorities during Moore's watch. Moore announced his retirement last month.

In one example, Moore confirmed that shots fired into a house with people inside are often recorded as misdemeanor property damage instead of felony shooting into an occupied dwelling, which is considered an aggravated assault, one of the crimes voluntarily reported to state and federal agencies for crime statistics purposes.

Moore only reports these shootings as assaults if a bullet hits a room in which people are in at the time. According to state rulings, courts consider this an assault even if the bullet only makes it to the porch. City officials point out that since reporting to the FBI is voluntary, cities don’t have to follow the same reporting methods as the courts. However, studies such as the Safe Home study base their results on the city’s self-reporting methods.

City officials have said the way Moore reports shootings into an occupied dwelling is a method that is also practiced by other law enforcement agencies; however, those officials couldn't name even one other law enforcement agency that reports it that way. In November, Rocky Mount police reported three assaults by persons shooting into an occupied dwelling. Five homes damaged by gunshots were classified as property damage, according to incident reports.

As result of the Telegram's reporting, Mayor Davis Combs invited the FBI to review the chief's reporting methodology.

“The FBI was invited to complete an audit of our reporting methods; however, they declined to participate,” said Tameka Kenan-Norman, the city's chief communications and marketing officer.

City officials are searching for a new police chief. When asked whether the new chief's priority will be crime prevention or lowering crime statistics, those officials would only say that the new chief will work to make Rocky Mount a safer community.

City officials said they have no way of knowing whether the Safe Home study will improve real estate sales or attract more businesses but acknowledged most people typically look at safety and quality of life before moving to an area.

Safe Home said it sometimes accepts compensation for its rankings, but officials said none was provided by the city.

For a full list of Safe Home's designations of the safest cities in North Carolina, visit www.safehome.org/safest-cities/nc/. To see the 24/7 Wall St. report, go to http://247wallst.com/special-report/2017/08/31/worst-cities-to-raise-children.