By Sarah Nagem
Parts of southeastern North Carolina saw a spike in homicides and other violent crimes in 2020, while fewer property crimes were reported.
The Scotland County town of Laurinburg, for example, had nine homicides last year, compared to three in 2019, according to data released this week by the FBI. Meanwhile, the town saw a roughly 39% drop in property crimes such as burglary and theft.
The Border Belt Independent looked at data for four counties – Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland. Much of the local data mirrors state and national trends, which show an uptick in violent crime, including homicides, rapes and assaults, and a drop in property crime.
North Carolina saw a roughly 11.2% increase in violent crime and a 6.9% decrease in property crime, the data shows.
The jump in homicides is particularly striking, as North Carolina saw a 29% increase.
The figure is even higher for the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, which saw a 59% increase in homicides – 35 last year and 22 the year before, according to the FBI. Violent crime reports overall increased about 41.2% for the sheriff’s office.
It’s impossible to pinpoint what might have led to the rise in violent crime in 2020, said Carissa Byrne Hessick, a professor at the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill.
Some experts have said stress from the coronavirus pandemic could be a factor, as many people lost their jobs or had loved ones die. Others have pointed to social unrest following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody.
Laurinburg Police Chief Darwin Williams said the early release of some inmates during the pandemic might have played a role.
“They get out there and they go right back to their old lifestyle,” Williams said. “We deal with them over and over.”
Byrne Hessick she had not seen research that indicates any specific reasons. Compiling such data could take years and years, she said, and even then a clear picture about what causes spikes and dips in crime might not emerge.
“People are still trying to explain what led to the steep rise in crime in the 1960s and ’70s,” she said. “The truth is, we don’t really understand crime very well.”
That goes for non-violent crime too, according to Byrne Hessick.
It might make sense that property crimes dropped last year as businesses closed and more people stayed home during the pandemic. But there could be other factors, Byrne Hessick said, including federal stimulus payments and additional food assistance for poor families.
“If I have enough money,” she said, “I’m not going to go out and steal someone’s car.”
Williams said some of the Laurinburg deaths designated by the FBI as homicides were justifiable shootings or self-defense, and he planned to reach out to the federal agency for clarification.
Laurinburg is “no different than any city in this country,” Williams said, and it has its share of gang activity and crime.
“We just have to adapt our techniques … to look for crime patterns to get in front of it,” he said, adding that kids must be taught to make good decisions.
“We’ve got to focus on making people better from adolescence,” Williams said.