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Locked Doors Replace Trust In Rural Areas
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Small communities' long-standing reputation as safe is being tarnished as big city crime makes its way to the rural South, a trend that is dropping but not as fast as crime in other areas.
U.S. Department of Justice data shows that U.S. residents age 12 and older were the victims of 31.3 million crimes in 1998. Most were property crimes, but 26 percent were violent. About one-third of all Americans live in rural areas, and according to FBI statistics, rural crime dropped 5 percent from 1997 to 1998, slightly less than the overall 7 percent crime rate decrease.
Dr. Greg Dunaway, coordinator of the Mississippi Crime and Justice Unit at Mississippi State University's Social Science Research Center, has conducted research in rural crime and policing in Mississippi. He said much, but not all, rural crime is similar to crimes committed in other areas.
"Rural crime can refer to crimes that take place in rural areas, but natural resource offenses and agricultural crimes are specific to rural areas," Dunaway said. "Things such as illegal hunting or dumping may be code violations, but also can be against the law."
Regardless of where it is committed, Dunaway said most crime is never reported. Victims of many crimes such as burglary, larceny and assault do not file reports. Once reported, local law enforcement offices sometimes do not forward those numbers to state or national databases.
"The FBI tabulates the uniform crime reports, and they depend on local police departments to report their statistics," Dunaway said. "Rural crime tends to be undercounted because a significant percentage of police in those jurisdictions do not consistently participate in the uniform crime reporting program."
In his research, Dunaway found that from 1980 to 1990, between 30 and 40 percent of Mississippi counties reported to the FBI no incidents of a specific crime for any given year. Dunaway suggested some of this under reporting on undermanned law enforcement offices. Officers have so many duties requiring their attention that reporting paperwork is not always a high priority.
Rural areas in transition, such as those growing rapidly from a new industry, often face higher crime rates than established cities of the same size. Dunaway called this the urbanization phenomenon on a smaller scale.
According to one prevalent crime theory, crimes are committed when population density increases because people don't know one another, don't share similar values and don't look out for each other. This anonymity makes it is easier for criminals to act and avoid capture because they don't know their victims.
Dr. Bo Beaulieu, director of the Southern Rural Development Center headquartered at MSU, said several reasons make rural crime cases harder to prevent and solve.
"In rural areas, access to law enforcement officials is not as easy because of distances involved," Beaulieu said. "People tend to live on large tracts of land, and it may be a while before they realize something was stolen. They may lack some of the information needed to make an accurate assessment of what is missing."
Beaulieu said the low rural populations make it easier to commit crimes because the likelihood of being seen is much less. Improved roads in rural areas has allowed people to commit crimes and escape easily. A lot of crime is committed by outside parties coming into rural areas.