Mayor promised safer city; 3 years later, its violence is up
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When Lenny Curry defeated Alvin Brown and swept into the mayor’s office in 2015, his campaign had a central message: violent crime is up, and he will fix it.
But after three years of increased police budgets and new crime initiatives under Curry’s leadership, the murder and violent crime rates in Duval County are worse.
Duval County continues to have the highest murder rate and the highest violent crime rate among the state’s 20 most populous counties. And Sheriff Mike Williams’ office is solving fewer crimes.
This trend of Duval’s increasing violence came as the state’s crime rates hit their all time low. Curry and Williams both declined interviews.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement just released new semi-annual data that tracked crime rates from January through June this year.
The Times-Union used past annual and semi-annual reports to track crime rates by mayoral administration since mayors take office in July. The state has tracked crime data in 1971.
What those reports make clear is that despite Curry’s aggressive messaging against crime under Brown, the city has failed to improve in areas Curry made the major focus of his campaign. (“This will be a safe city again,” he said when he was elected. “For every family, every person, every kid, every neighborhood, will know that we care about them.”) In fact, during Brown’s administration, the city’s average murder and average violent crime rates were at the lowest points they’ve been in decades, but since Curry took office, those rates have trended up.
In 2014, near the end of Brown’s term, murder and violent crime rates were beginning to trend upward, but in his last six months in office, in 2015, those rates fell again so that Duval had one of its lowest murder rates in the last three decades. Yet Curry used high-profile violent incidents to stir up voters’ emotions.
“We should all be angry, we should all be upset, we should all be mourning,” Curry told a group of business owners before the election. “Our violent crime has now spiked over the last three years, the murder rate is now back up.”
A University of North Florida poll found Curry’s messaging worked. Among voters who supported Curry in the poll, nearly half listed crime as the most important problem facing Jacksonville. Curry promised to reduce crime by hiring 147 more police officers. The current budget included 134 more positions than Brown’s final budget.
Despite Curry’s focus on violent crime, after he took office, the murder rate rose again in 2016 and it has been rising ever since.
The average murder rate increased nearly 12 percent during Curry’s term, and the county’s average violence rate increased one percent compared to the yearly averages from Brown’s tenure.
Since Curry took office, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office budget has ballooned. In the last budget before he took office, the Sheriff’s Office made up 25 percent of the city budget. Today, it’s at 36 percent of the budget, costing the city $439 million even as the city spends less of that money on pension costs and more on personnel.
In 2017, Jacksonville invested in two programs that Curry and Williams said would help police solve gun crimes: ShotSpotter, which is supposed to detect gunfire as it happens, and the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which is supposed to allow police to more quickly test bullet casings. Yet the Sheriff’s Office overall clearance rates are down, and the share of murders cleared by arrest are down, according to the state data. Since Williams took office in July 2015, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has reported 321 murders to the state, but it has only made 90 murder arrests.
During that same time, however, the Sheriff’s Office increased the share of drug arrests. During the former sheriff’s last term, drugs made up 13 percent of arrests; now they make up more than 14 percent.
Lt. Chris Brown, an agency spokesman, said it was important to note that before the Sheriff’s Office makes a murder arrest, it relies on the State Attorney’s Office to sign off on a warrant.
In a statement, Marlo Zarka, Sheriff Williams’ assistant, said that the crime reports provide “an overall snapshot of the clearance rates based upon clearances at the time of reporting. ... It is further worth pointing out that these numbers are six months old. Year-end numbers within each specific crime types are more timely and more accurate than this data report is designed to convey.”
Zarka said that past year-end clearance data showed the Sheriff’s Office solving half of the city’s murders, but the Sheriff’s Office’s own public data shows that about 61 percent of homicides in 2017 and 2018 were still open. The remainder were cleared by arrest, because the suspect died or because the killing was ruled as justified.
One caveat: when police calculate clearance rates, an arrest in 2018 for a crime that happened in 2017 still counts as a clearance for 2018. That means it’s actually possible to get a clearance rate above 100 percent. The Sheriff’s Office’s public data only included homicides that occurred in 2017 or 2018, so it’s possible that the clearance rate for those years would actually be higher than 39 percent.
“JSO works diligently to track crime numbers in our community — it is what we do every day,” Zarka said. “We focus efforts to drive crime down and we know the needle is moving. We will release the annual crime analysis for 2018 at the onset on 2019, as we do every year.”
Since Curry’s and Williams’ election in 2015, the county’s murder rate has increased in every report from FDLE. Both men are up for reelection in the spring.
Duval County is simply moving away from the rest of the state. As the rest of the state grows safer, Duval’s trends are in the opposite direction.
In the first six months of 2018, the murder rate rose nearly six percent compared to the same period in 2017, and the violent crime rate increased by about half a percent. Duval’s violent crime rate for the first half of 2018 also inched up slightly even as the state violent crime rate fell by seven percent. Though the state’s murder rate grew a slight 2.6 percent, Duval’s grew a little more, 5.7 percent.
Curry isn’t the only politician to use misleading statistics to invoke fear of higher crime rates. Ron DeSantis, the state’s incoming governor, made criticizing Tallahassee’s crime rates a centerpiece of his campaign for governor. Often, DeSantis falsely claimed that a website had declared Tallahassee one of the most “crime-ridden” cities in America, but the website had made no such claim.
During that campaign, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams vigorously endorsed DeSantis, even flying to one of the debates the same day the city suffered from a mass shooting. Duval County’s violent crime rate was actually higher than Leon County’s during the campaign, according to recently released data, and Duval’s murder rate was almost triple Leon’s.
The murder rate in Duval County was so much higher than the state average that Broward County, which suffered from the mass murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, still had a murder rate for the first six months of 2018 that was less than half Duval County’s rate.
Despite the increasing crime and the county’s changing political culture — Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, won the traditionally Republican county by more than four percentage points — no formidable challenger has emerged to oppose Curry. By this time in 2015, Curry had been campaigning for months and was already airing television ads. The 2015 campaign brought to town heavy hitters from both parties: former President Bill Clinton, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
While Michael Binder, a University of North Florida pollster, said Curry had some vulnerabilities, but no serious challenger has been publicly campaigning for mayor, and by this point, it’s probably too late.
“There are people very opposed to him, but he’s blocked the field,” Binder said. “I think he’s going to cruise” to victory.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com