George Boardman: Perception is reality when the subject is crime in our community |

George Boardman: Perception is reality when the subject is crime in our community

Observations from the center stripe: Hard knocks edition

A NEW study reports that 90 percent of the brains of former football players examined showed evidence of CTE, a debilitating brain disease that is caused by repeated blows to the head. Do you still want your son to play football? … WHEN FOX Business talking head Lou Dobbs says The New York Times is owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, is it fake news or is he just lying? … THE DEMOCRATS’ new slogan, “A Better Deal,” was greeted with the indifference it deserves … A BASIC rule of California politics: If a candidate for statewide office has the time to campaign in a place like Nevada County, he has no shot at getting elected to a statewide office …

When the subject is crime, it doesn’t matter what the numbers say. Perception is reality.

That was never more clear than at a recent Grass Valley City Council meeting when residents voiced concern about the “rising” crime rate in their community, even though there is no statistical evidence to back-up those claims.

Long-time residents vented about not feeling safe or secure any more, about confrontations with the homeless and mentally ill, a general feeling that crime is on the rise, and that it’s no longer advisable to leaves cars and structures unlocked at night.

Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard understands their frustration: “There’s not a statistical change (in the crime rate) — but that being said, I’ve lived here my entire life, and I’ll say that what I see in town sometimes isn’t what I saw a decade ago. The way people are feeling shouldn’t be discounted by trying to put statistics in front of them.”

Gammelgard pointed out that the spread of social media has made the “reporting” of crime news more widespread, and this can amp up people’s apprehension. He didn’t say it, but much of the reporting about crime on Facebook and other outlets is rumor, half-truths, innuendo and a failure to put any of the “facts” in proper context.

You can get a real education reading about crimes on Facebook and in blog posts, and then comparing that with the police report in the next edition of The Union. Unfortunately, too many people get their news from just Facebook.

Several studies show that the public’s perception of the crime problem — is it better or worse? — correlates with how much coverage crime gets in the news media. Local television news, which prefers to show you instead of make you think, adheres to the dictum that “if it bleeds it leads” the broadcast.

The Union and other newspapers get regular complaints about publishing too much crime news; some people apparently think that if The Union runs less of it or take the stories off page one, people will forget about crime or won’t notice it. But “Police Blotter” is one of the most popular features in the paper and The Union’s year-end list of most popular online stories is always dominated by crime news.

Still, you have to take seriously people like my fellow Union contributor R.L. Crabb, a life-long resident of Grass Valley and a shrewd observer of the local scene, who wrote on his blog recently about being overwhelmed by the homeless, mentally ill and criminals. “It’s worse than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”

Ted Burt of Grass Valley put it in more graphic terms when he addressed the council. While he expressed sympathy for their plight, Burt said, “… when the homeless start defecating on your porch, or wiping their rear ends on people’s tarps, or leaving stolen stuff in your yard, something has to be done.”

Everybody agrees we have a serious homeless problem; we certainly spend enough time talking about it. Many of these people also have mental health issues that require institutional treatment, something that’s not likely to happen in California anytime soon. If Nevada County comes up with a solution to its homeless problem, it will be first in the nation to do so.

The prevalence of drugs in the community is also a driver of crime, particularly property crime. The passage of Proposition 47 in 2014 reduced (and for all intends eliminated) penalties for property crimes, triggering a dramatic increase in property crime rates across the state. If you need to feed your drug habit and a theft will get you charged with a misdemeanor instead of a felony, you might as well go for it. You’ll probably walk anyway.

That leads us to the police and criminal justice system. I continue to be amazed at the number of locals arrested in the community on a new charge who already have several outstanding warrants. Apparently actually trying to find and arrest these guys is a low priority for the police.

Of course, anybody who appears before a judge will likely be given the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge. Since the state only wants to house the baddest of the bad guys in our tax-supported prisons, our local miscreant is likely to end up in the county jail if he just doesn’t end up on the streets. (Since more than 90 percent of criminal cases are plea-bargained, you have to wonder why we spend so much money on prosecutors.)

If you believe the likes of The Wall Street Journal, the crime problem is only going to get worse in the rural areas of America (that includes us).

“Since the 1990s, sparsely populated counties have replaced large cities as America’s most troubled areas by key measures of socioeconomic well-being,” the Journal has proclaimed in an ongoing series of articles that portray rural America as the new inner city.

“In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs, and medium or small metro areas),” the paper stated.

None of that describes Nevada County, but there’s plenty of evidence these problems exist in the counties north of us. With a stagnant population and an economy going nowhere, we could be next.

We haven’t reached the crisis level in crime yet, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. We need to keep the pressure on our elected officials at the state and local levels to come up with real solutions to these problems. State officials in particular need be reminded of cost of crime to victims and society.

In the meantime, residents have to stay fully engaged in the community they profess to love. The perceived increase in crime cannot lead to increased fear and withdrawal by residents. People who report crime and suspicious behavior, and who cooperate with the police, help maintain the high level of informal social control that made it easier to solve the problem. We’re all in this together.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at

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