RALEIGH — The homicide rate rose nearly 6 percent in North Carolina last year, but the overall crime rate was the lowest since 1977, state Attorney General Roy Cooper announced Thursday.
In the Triangle, the news was mixed, with the overall crime rate up in Chatham and Franklin counties, down in Durham, Orange and Johnston and essentially unchanged in Wake.
Cooper called the statewide numbers “encouraging news” but sounded a note of warning about government spending on law enforcement. Joined by State Bureau of Investigation Director Greg McLeod and SBI statistician Tim Parker, Cooper sharply criticized state budget cuts for the coming year of $5 million for the Department of Justice and $26 million for the Department of Public Safety.
“The snapshot of crime statistics in North Carolina may tell us what and how many crimes occurred, but it does not tell us which ones of them are solved,” Cooper said. “Our state legislators must make it a priority to give law enforcement the tools, training and the pay that are needed, even in tough economic times, but they aren’t doing it.”
Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield who is chairman of the House Appropriations Judiciary Subcommittee, called Cooper’s criticism of the budget cuts “unfortunate.” Daughtry pointed to the General Assembly’s funding of the Justice Reinvestment Act as one legislative effort to combat crime by improving supervision of people on probation.
He noted that it was important to come up with a budget that could carry the state over to the next legislative session.
“We feel pretty good about what we are doing. We are doing our best,” Daughtry said. “This legislative cycle is over. If I am re-elected, then I am sure we will closely monitor the needs of the courts and the corrections system, and we will take the input of the attorney general into consideration.”
But during Thursday’s press conference, Cooper said the Justice Reinvestment Act means the Department of Public Safety will be expected to supervise 15,000 new probationers by the year 2013, but without money to hire new probation officers to supervise them.
Cooper also spoke about a “surge” of crimes not included in the state crime index, including methamphetamine labs where children may be present, prescription drug abuse, child pornography and the use of the Internet to sexually exploit children.
Local law enforcement agencies busted 344 meth labs last year and are on pace to exceed that number this year, but will have to do it with fewer SBI agents. Cooper also said 1,000 people overdosed or died in North Carolina last year as a result of prescription drug abuse and that child pornography is on the rise.
“Overall the numbers are promising,” Cooper said about the decline. “But there are ominous warnings that our state legislature must heed.”
Cooper noted the SBI’s DNA lab is losing “valuable and highly trained agents” because the agency can’t afford to adequately pay them. Cooper said the average salary of an SBI agent hired in 2004 is 10.4 percent lower than a Highway Patrol trooper hired that same year, even though entry-level SBI agents have higher qualification and certification requirements.
Despite the rise in homicides, the state’s violent crime rate – which includes rape, robbery and aggravated assault – was down 5.2 percent, while property crime was down 0.5 percent.
The homicide rate, up 5.9 percent, was largely sparked by domestic violence and incidents in “key areas,” including the Triangle, Cooper said.
There were 27 homicides in Durham last year, compared with 22 in 2010. Raleigh had 17 homicides in 2011, up three from the year before. In other areas across the state, the number of homicides in Charlotte dropped nearly 10 percent, to 55, while homicides in Greensboro more than doubled to 41.
Cooper said it was hard to tell what drove the homicide rate upward in 2011 after two years of decline.
“We get anecdotal reports from law enforcement about real concerns with gang activity and the use of guns in those crimes, but it’s very difficult to tell,” he said.