Chattanooga-area voters ranked crime as the biggest problem facing the city in a Chattanooga Times Free Press survey of 376 people during early voting and on Election Day.
Crime: 49 percent
Unemployment: 18 percent
Moral decline and family breakdown: 12 percent
Education: 10 percent
Governmental disunity: 5 percent
Racism: 3 percent
Transportation: 2 percent
Nearly half of people polled during a Chattanooga Times Free Press voter survey said crime, violence and gangs are the largest problems facing Chattanooga.
However, according to FBI uniform crime reporting data for 2011, Chattanooga actually had a lower violent crime rate than other nearby cities, including Cleveland, Tenn.
When compared with Southern cities of similar size, including Knoxville; Huntsville, Ala.; and Jackson, Miss., Chattanooga's violent crime rate is similar.
"Our crime rates are comparable if not lower," said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd.
The city's 22 homicides so far this year are down 8 percent from 2011, when 24 people were slain.
The overall number of violent crimes committed in Chattanooga is far higher than in Cleveland. However, measuring the number of crimes per 100,000 population gives a different perspective: 863 violent crimes per 100,000 people in Chattanooga compared with 839 for Huntsville, Ala., and 1,049 for Cleveland, according to 2011 data.
Times Free Press staff members surveyed 376 voters in the region during early voting and on Election Day. Asked about the biggest problem facing the Chattanooga area, 49 percent said crime, followed by 18 percent who cited unemployment.
Helen Eigenberg, professor and department head for the criminal justice program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it's no surprise that crime topped the list of concerns.
"Having more people fearful of crime than is the real risk of victimization is not unique to Chattanooga and has been a trend nationally for 30 years," she said. "At least one popular explanation is the media effect in terms of the reporting and in terms of entertainment."
She cited the recent gang assessment conducted by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, which noted that high-crime areas and gang turfs mostly are concentrated in certain neighborhoods including Avondale, Glenwood, Ridgedale, Westside, Alton Park, Oak Grove, Highland Park and Glass Street.
Unless people live in areas of high poverty and unemployment where there is higher crime, the chances of becoming a victim are actually small, Eigenberg said.
Up in 2012
Over the last three years, the city's crime has decreased.
Violent crime was down by nearly 19 percent during that period. But year-to-date statistics taken in October show the city on pace for an increase in violent crime for the year. Compared with 2011, violent crime is up 2 percent to date in 2012.
"Aggravated assaults are the biggest concern ... with an increase of 22 percent over 2011 rates," Dodd said in an email. "We attribute this directly to the number of gang-related robberies, aggravated assaults and murders."
The city's gang problem has come to the forefront this year, with funds being earmarked for a new task force to roll out an anti-gang program. The task force commissioned an assessment to measure how widespread the problem is and where resources are needed most.
For decades, leaders denied there were gangs in the city. In recent years, gangs have been cited as the reason for more and more violent crime.
"The difference in what we have been dealing with over the past 12 to 18 months is the number of gang-related shootings and the young ages of the suspects and victims," Dodd said.
"We are seeing assaults carried out by younger suspects, ages 15 to 18, who seem to care about no one, not even themselves," Dodd said.
"Gang members and associates are willing to shoot each other for no apparent reason other than to gain recognition, or to settle simple disputes that could be handled in a less violent manner," Dodd said.
Cleveland's year-to-date overall totals for violent crime look similar to 2011 totals, said Cleveland police Sgt. Scott Bronze, who compiles the department's statistics.
"Most of our crime has gone down this year," Bronze said. "I know it looks like a higher percentage of crime. It's because our population is smaller."
A disclaimer on the FBI's website discourages statistical comparisons among agencies.
"There's lots of different reasons for that, but one of them is [that] how you actually define crime from state to state are not the same necessarily," Eigenberg said. "If you use the Chattanooga metro statistical area, it has Georgia in there as well as Tennessee. I understand why they [the FBI] are doing it in terms of area, but you have different state statutes."
The other issue is how police departments report crimes.
"These reports are highly contingent on police reporting behavior. There's no monitoring of that," Eigenbereg said. "It depends on how aggressive police are keeping records and reporting things."
Some departments underreport crimes. Eigenberg said Dodd has a reputation for being proactive in reporting offenses.
"With all of the gang issues in the press right now, it would not surprise me if they [Chattanooga police] are being especially proactive with respect to violent crime," she said.
Last week, Chattanooga police organized a holiday operation, "Gangsgiving," for the third consecutive year, targeting people with open warrants, gang members and other violators. Thirty-four people were arrested, including 17 gang members.
"There is a core group of repeat offenders who continue to cause the spike in crime rates due to the fact that victims and witnesses are either not willing, or are too intimidated, to testify against them," Dodd said.
"We are hopeful with the gang assessment study being completed, all of our collective resources can be brought together and make some changes in the lives of these young offenders."