Violent crime increases in Ashland

Violent crime increased in Ashland last year, recently released statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations show.

Twenty-nine instances of violent crime — defined by the FBI as murder and negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault — were reported in Ashland last year, up from 19 reported cases in 2007. Though no murders were reported within Ashland city limits, incidents of aggravated assault more than doubled, jumping from five cases to 12. The numbers are the result of city-by-city crime data for the year 2008, made public last week.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness says the department is aware of the spike in crime. But he discounts the notion that they are indicative of any long-term increases in criminal activity.

"Crime statistics are up," Holderness said, "but (2007) was one of the lowest years we've had. This is mostly an increase back to what we were seeing before."

Property crime and larceny theft also saw increases in 2008. While data for 2009 is not yet available, Holderness said those figures are holding steady with the 2008 numbers. He said part of the reason for the increases is that Ashland has a significantly lower crime rate than other communities.

"We saw the trends late last year. We expected crimes were going to be up this year," he said. "Ashland is such a safe place, so a slight fluctuation looks abnormal. But violent crime is about one-third of the national average and as far as long-term trends go, Ashland is still in a downward trend."

As evidence, he pointed to a pair of burglars last year who were in town for five days. They committed 15 robberies in that time before being apprehended. Holderness said that five-day span accounted for two percent of Ashland's crime for the entire year.

"If it had been ten days instead of five, the statistics would be even higher," he said.

Despite the potential for fluctuation, Holderness acknowledged that the increase in violent crime is a cause for concern. He said alcohol abuse and job losses due to the economy could be playing a role in pushing some people toward lawlessness.

"We are definitely seeing an increase in aggravated assault," he said. "The thing about aggravated assault and rape in the city of Ashland is that a substantial number of aggravated assault is due to domestic violence. When the economy is bad, consumption goes up, and domestic violence goes up as well."

Living in a college town compounds the problem. With 5,000 students dispersed around the community, not centered in a particular location, tracking suspected criminal activity is especially difficult. Holderness says the department is adjusting its approaches to deal with more instances of assault and rape. But he said the town's various demographics and social centers make being everywhere at once impossible.

"If there were an area of the city where people were at risk of being assaulted or mugged, it would be easier to deal with than when it occurs at random parties," Holderness said. "So much of it is related to alcohol. That's why we've increased our efforts to deal with minors in possession of alcohol and DUII."

Dealing with the increase in sexual assaults is one of the greatest concerns facing the APD. Eleven incidents involving forcible rape were reported last year, up from seven in 2008. Like assault, rape is an issue compounded — though by no means solely instigated — by the concentration of college-aged residents living around town, and the abundance of alcohol consumed at parties.

"This is a college town, with 5,000 students," he said. "We can't be sure what percentage is getting reported." He said that while it can be difficult, victims of rape should report their attack to the police. The actual number of rapes committed in Ashland is much higher than the numbers show, according to Holderness.

"Based on statistics, there are probably a couple dozen rapes each year that are not reported," Holderness said.

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