Crime on the rise in Nevada County?: Local statistics show perception isn’t always reality (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

Crime on the rise in Nevada County?: Local statistics show perception isn’t always reality (VIDEO)

Matthew Pera and Alan Riquelmy
Staff Writers

Downtown Grass Valley's streets are lined with historic Gold Rush-era buildings, alluring cafes and storefronts, and ridges covered in tall pine trees that provide the backdrop for the beautiful city.

But is the small town as charming as it seems? Is Grass Valley, underneath its surface, a dangerous place?

Some say crime is on the rise throughout Nevada County. Anyone who has read through posts and comments on the numerous "Nevada County" Facebook groups might get the idea that things are out of control. At recent Grass Valley City Council meetings, public comments have largely focused on concerns over residents' safety.

"We're being overrun with risk, and we're being overrun with crime," said county resident Nicholas George at a July 11 council meeting.

“... Do you really think Grass Valley is the fifth most dangerous city in California? I think any reasonable person would say, ‘No.’” Alex GammelgardGrass Valley Police Chief

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George said he's lived in Nevada County for 20 years, and the problem has "gotten far worse."

PERCEPTION VS. REALITY IN GRASS VALLEY

A recent outcry arose when a website, "Roadsnacks.net," published a list of the "10 most dangerous cities in California for 2017," which ranked Grass Valley as number five. The site states it used FBI uniform crime reporting data from 2015 and compared California's cities based on violent crimes and property crimes per capita.

But Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard said comparing the number of crimes per capita in Grass Valley, which has a population of about 13,000 residents, with other cities throughout the state doesn't paint a very accurate picture of what someone can expect while walking down the street.

"What I would say to people is, number one, do you really think Grass Valley is the fifth most dangerous city in California?" Gammelgard said. "I think any reasonable person would say, 'No.'"

He noted the FBI's website cautions against using uniform crime reporting statistics to compile rankings of cities and counties.

"These rankings … provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction," the website says. "Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents."

When it comes to the numbers, Gammelgard said, crime isn't on the rise in Grass Valley.

"Statistically, over the last five years or so, crime is relatively flat," he said.

— Graphs by Content Editor Samantha Sullivan

Grass Valley's uniform crime reporting statistics from 2012 to 2016 show that no murders were reported within city limits during that time period. The numbers of other reported crimes have fluctuated gently, but none have significantly increased. Reports of rape were highest in 2012 and 2014, with five reported incidents during each of those years, but that number dropped to three in 2015 and one in 2016.

Reports of larceny, otherwise known as petty theft, spiked in 2013 with 551 reported incidents — up from 452 in 2012. That number decreased in 2014 and 2015 before spiking again — up to 521 in 2016. Reports of robbery, assault, burglary and arson have either stayed relatively the same or decreased during that time period. Motor vehicle thefts have gone up and down, with the highest number reported in 2016.

Gammelgard clarified that California legislation passed in 2014 that reduced the severity of some violations didn't affect crime statistics. He said he's heard the argument that police are reporting a plateau or decrease in criminal activity as a result of violators not being arrested under Proposition 47 (see accompanying story).

"Just from a statistical standpoint, if somebody receives a citation for petty theft instead of previously being booked, it's still going into the stats," he said.

Regardless of what the numbers say, Gammelgard said it's important not to discount people's feelings and perceptions.

"The police department's job is to make people safe, and keep our community safe, but really it's to make sure that people feel safe," he said. "And right now that's a serious issue in our community: the perception of crime."

Gammelgard said the perception that crime has increased in Grass Valley can be partially attributed to the new ways the community talks about crime.

"In today's world, if your neighbor has something stolen, or their house broken into, what used to be a conversation within a neighborhood is now a conversation throughout a community and beyond," he said. "But that should not, by any means, minimize the fact that for every crime, there is a victim."

When asked how much homelessness plays into the Grass Valley crime statistics, Gammelgard said there is definetly a "nexus" between the local homeless population and crime — mostly, he said, theft-related crime and other low-level offenses. But he's most concerned by the fire risk associated with numerous homeless camps in wooded areas throughout the city.

"Fire risk is severe, and that's why we are taking a strong stance on saying that camping is not an acceptable way to live in our community. It puts too many people at risk. It's not good for the individual who's in that position, and we'd rather see them seek services and see them come out of their state of homelessness," he said.

NEVADA CITY: A DOWNWARD TREND

Nevada City Police Chief Timothy Foley said the level of reported crime has decreased in his jurisdiction.

"Over the last three years, I'd have to say we've done a really good job of reducing the crime stats," he said.

Uniform crime reporting data for Nevada City was available beginning in 2013. No homicides were reported from 2013 to 2016. Three incidents of rape were reported in 2013, and that number decreased in the following years. The number of robberies has stayed fairly flat at one per year, with the exception of two in 2015. The number of reported incidents of aggravated assault was highest in 2014, with 54 cases, but that number went down to 10 in 2015 and seven in 2016. Burglaries have also gone down.

The numbers of arson, grand larceny and petty larceny reports were all at their highest in 2015 or 2016.

Foley said his department works together with members of the community to maintain safety and the perception of it.

"Perception of crime, I think, is at a very low level here," he said. "Are you going to be able to find people who think it's out of control? Probably. But I think it comes down to personal experience. I think if you look at the broad picture of things, we're in pretty good shape."

Foley said the department sees some crime related to the local homeless population, such as illegal camping, drug and alcohol violations. But looking at the big picture, he said, the population isn't causing many major criminal issues. To say that homeless people are the cause of crimes, Foley said, is to look at "the low-lying fruit."

"Homelessness is a concern, it's a societal concern … but I think the reality of it is that they create minimal crime," he said.

SHERIFF: COUNTY CRIME ON DECLINE

The crime statistics for Nevada County rise and fall with the years.

One homicide (a category that includes manslaughter) occurred in 2012. Two happened in 2013 and three in 2014. The county had zero in 2015 and then a jump to six for 2016, the statistics show.

Despite a climb in homicides for that year, Sheriff Keith Royal called this a safe community.

According to Royal, a majority of homicides in Nevada County involve a suspect and victim who knew each other.

"I think the community should be concerned when we have unexplained homicides," the sheriff said. "We've never really seen that in the unincorporated area."

The number of reported vehicle thefts has increased in the county. Ten were reported in 2012 and six were reported in 2013, but that number has steadily increased up to 17 in 2016. The number of reported incidents of rape, robbery and assault have all decreased.

Larceny reached its highest level in 2016 with 398 reported incidents, and burglary spiked in 2015 with 380 reports, but the number of reports has fluctuated throughout the years for both.

Like many people who live here, Royal has seen the online chatter about the supposed high level of crime. He doesn't buy it, instead pointing to the media and social media as culprits in creating a perception of high crime.

A Facebook post about rampant crime in Alta Sierra led Royal to examine one year's crime records for that community. In that year they found only three burglary reports, the sheriff said.

"You see these single events and it gives the impression you have a major crime problem when that's not reality," he said.

Royal also has seen the online comments accusing homeless people of playing a role in the area's crime. His office has had an increase in calls about nuisance issues, but Royal said he couldn't attribute specific crime to the homeless.

Royal said that the homeless tend to live on city fringes. They want to remain close to services, necessitating a location near a city.

"But we don't see these types of issues in the unincorporated (county)," the sheriff said.

To contact Staff Writers Matthew Pera and Alan Riquelmy, email mpera@theunion.com and ariquelmy@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231 and 530-477-4239.

More crime coverage:

Person on the street: Do you think crime is on the rise?

Nevada County sheriff, district attorney discuss Prop 47's effects

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