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As rivals target Andrew Gillum for Tallahassee’s high crime rate, residents wonder: Are we really the worst?

Crime is falling in the area, but not fast enough to prevent it from becoming one of the main criticisms of Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen looking west along Apalachee Parkway in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 8, 2018|Updated Oct. 8, 2018

With its rolling hills, live oaks and southern charm, Florida's capital city seems an unlikely candidate for arguably the state's worst statistic: highest crime rate.

But the area has indeed ranked first the past few years, a local problem that has become a statewide one for Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who's trying to become the first Democrat to win the Governor's Mansion in 20 years.

Gillum's opponent, former Congressman Ron DeSantis, and his fellow Republicans have worked to highlight the grim statistic, questioning how Gillum can govern a state when he can't manage a small city.

"You've had the highest crime rate in Tallahassee of all of Florida for four years," DeSantis said last month. "We're going to have safe communities if I'm governor. We are not if Andrew's governor."

Locals have a variety of theories about why the crime rate is so high. It's from growing pains, faulty statistics or a stark economic inequality.

But if there's one thing most seem to agree on, it's that their fair city doesn't feel like the poster child for crime.

"When I talk about crime to people who are from bigger cities like Miami and Atlanta, they literally laugh at me," says Christic Henry, a realtor and former president of Tallahassee's Council of Neighborhood Associations.

Technically, it's Leon County, not Tallahassee, that has had the highest crime rate in Florida for the past four years, according to state data.

To calculate the crime rate, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement collects seven categories of crimes — murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, thefts and car thefts — and divides the total number by the local population.

Police in Leon County reported 13,826 crimes last year. With a county population of 288,000, the crime rate was 4,802 crimes for every 100,000 people, easily the highest in the state. The next-closest was Bay County, which had more than 500 fewer crimes for every 100,000 people.

The data shows that Tallahassee, the only city in the county, with two-thirds of the overall population, was the driver. Nearly 80 percent of the county crimes last year were reported by Tallahassee police.

On its own, Tallahassee's crime rate ranks 28th in the state among more than 500 police departments.

A spike in murders last year — 22 in Leon County and 17 in Tallahassee — jolted city leaders. Gillum proposed using the county's emergency operations center and shifting power to the county sheriff to tackle violent crime. The idea went nowhere.

Experts say there are good reasons to be skeptical of Tallahassee's numbers.

For one, police departments across the country have been caught misclassifying rapes and other violent crimes to make it appear such crime is going down.

The FBI does not require that police departments send them statistics and does not punish departments that are found to have manipulated them.

In Tallahassee, an audit last year found the department was over-counting some crimes. It found that Tallahassee police were reporting 11 percent more sex offenses, 8.5 percent more robberies and 20 percent more aggravated assaults than it should have been. Burglaries, thefts and simple assaults were each over-reported by an estimated 3 percent as well.

The audit chalked up the errors to a faulty records system and supervisors not properly reviewing officers' reports.

More than 100 aggravated assaults should have been classified as simple assaults, auditors found. In other cases, incidents with multiple victims were being counted as multiple crimes, when they should have been counted as a single crime. And crimes that were later determined to be unfounded should have been removed. One traffic-related homicide was incorrectly filed as a murder.

Overall, the city's crime rate was probably 10 to 13 percent lower than the 2017 numbers showed, the audit determined.

On top of that, the crime rate doesn't appear to take into account the more than 60,000 estimated college students who move to Tallahassee each year.

Each of those things would make Tallahassee appear more dangerous than it really is.

But current and former officers said Tallahassee and its police department are also culturally different from the state's big cities. Its residents are not shy about calling police, and the police department is aggressive about taking reports.

"We have a higher emphasis on taking reports," said David Folsom, who retired from the Tallahassee police as a captain before joining the Leon County Sheriff's Office as undersheriff. "If you call here and say, 'Hey, someone came in my garage and took my lawn mower,' that's going to be a report."

In other cities, he and others said, police might discourage residents from filing reports.

"When stuff happens here, people call the police and expect that something's going to be done, whether it's a potted plant stolen or a car broken in," said Leroy Peck, a retired Tallahassee Police Department lieutenant who is president of the city's Council of Neighborhood Associations.

That is nearly impossible to verify with data, but if true, the trend would also boost Tallahassee's numbers. Federal surveys nationwide show fewer than half of violent crime and property crime victims report incidents to police.

Bill Bales, a professor at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, said the crime rate probably does not reflect how most residents feel.

"I don't know anybody in my history here who thought Tallahassee was a dangerous place in any stretch of the imagination," said Bales, who said he's lived in the city for 40 years.

But crime has become an issue, and city leaders have been trying to combat it.

Gillum's former chief of staff, Dustin Daniels, is running for Tallahassee mayor this year, and he's sent at least two campaign mailers vowing to do better on the crime rate.

DeSantis has seized on the mailers, citing them as evidence that Gillum is weak on crime. Daniels told the Tallahassee Democrat that the criticism was "absurd and desperate."

"Crime is falling in Tallahassee, and this mailer promotes all the ways Mayor Gillum made that happen — and how we should continue it," Daniels said.

Crime in the county fell 15 percent last year, and it's down 10 percent in the city this year, according to police.

Police and others said that blaming — or crediting — Gillum for the crime rate was short-sighted and simplistic. The city has a "weak mayor" system, meaning it's run by the city manager, and the mayor and commission largely determine policy.

Several people attributed the crime rate to recent growth.

"We're in this growing pain as a city where now that we've built a lot of new infrastructure and businesses, we've had a ton of people move here in the last 20 years," said Max Herrle, president of the Tallahassee Bar & Hospitality Association, which represents 33 bars and restaurants in Tallahassee.

Tallahassee is one of the most economically segregated communities in America, studies show. The city's economy revolves around state government and the university system, and not much else.

"There's a hopelessness (in those neighborhoods)," Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor said. "What we don't have enough of are just plain, old-fashioned jobs."

During a city commission meeting last month, Pastor Rudolph Ferguson lamented how he had to give a eulogy for a 19-year-old man killed in a drug-related shooting on the south side of town last month.

Ferguson thanked the commission for their help supporting the DREAMS Center, which gives teens in the Frenchtown neighborhood a safe place to hang out, and urged more support.

"We in Griffin Heights need the continued support of this body," Ferguson said. "The battle is real. The situation is paramount."


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