With violent crime on the rise across the country and the state of Kansas, U.S. residents are perhaps more than ever putting a premium on safety of their communities.
A recent study by backgroundchecks.org looked at the safest places to live in Kansas (with a population of more than 10,000), weighing the violent crime rates, property crime rates and law enforcement numbers. While many area cities meeting the study's criteria ranked near the bottom of that list, with Newton coming in at 25th of 30 qualifying cities, McPherson was named one of the safest places to live in Kansas — No. 5, according to backgroundchecks.org.
Overall, Kansas has violent crime rates slightly above the national average (4.2 per 1,000 residents, having increased gradually the last few years), but the study graded nearly half of the qualifying cities with positive scores — given relatively low violent crime and property crime rates.
Newton's low ranking in the study, however, can mainly be attributed to violent crimes — with 7.1 incidents per 1,000 residents in 2018 (up from 6.3 in 2017), according to KBI statistics. Those numbers have been a bit of a misnomer in recent years, according to interim Newton Police Chief Craig Dunlavy, with a spike in violent criminal activity — out of the norm from historic patterns — that can be attributed to one factor in particular — narcotics.
"That's the major component of this whole thing," Dunlavy said. "We've now got another drug detective that's on board. We're trying to take a proactive approach to things, but that's the primer for a lot of these things. That's a driver for our property crimes, for our violent crimes."
Interim McPherson Police Chief Mikel Golden said drugs have drawn a similar focus among his department in the community. While methamphetamine and opioids are causing issues — a familiar scenario in many communities across the U.S. — Golden noted his department has also taken a proactive approach.
Currently, Golden has two officers in training to bolster the McPherson County Drug Task Force. He also commended previous Chief Rob McClarty for the elite training he made available to officers, while Golden noted the department is also committed to getting out in the community — in the schools, at athletic events or just sharing a cup of coffee — to promote communication among the city and its police force to help enhance safety.
"We're constantly making interactions with the community in a positive light," Golden said. "They like to see us engaged and we really like to stay engaged with our community."
"Our citizens are very informative to us. They actively use our Crime Stoppers and they call in, and our officers are just very engaged with our community. Granted, we don't always get all the results we want when we send them (criminals) through court, but that's out of our hands," Golden said. "We do have the bad element that comes in, but we address it as soon as we find out about it. We're very proactive on that."
Violent crime rates in McPherson are well below both state and national averages, seeing nearly half the incidents (1.8 per 1,000 residents, per the KBI) of violent crime within the city in 2018. McPherson was not the only area city to see violent crime rates drop, as Great Bend, El Dorado, Hutchinson, Salina and Wichita also were included. While ranking lower in the study (22nd and 26th, respectively), both Salina and Hutchinson saw their violent crime rates drop in 2018 as well.
For almost all area cities in the study, property crime rates followed both the state and national trend downwards — with the exception of El Dorado and Wichita, which both saw increases. The third, and perhaps most telling, factor in the study was law enforcement numbers — with Newton and McPherson finding themselves in dramatically different positions.
With 34 officers, the McPherson Police Department is currently at an all-time staffing high, according to Golden. That equates to 2.58 officers per 1,000 residents.
Having those numbers helps with the proactive measures McPherson Police Department is striving to be engaged in — though Golden did admit that the size of the city may help in that regard as well.
"Being 5 square miles, we're not the biggest city in the world, but we have three to four to five officers on shift at a time and they're out there doing their job," Golden said.
Comparatively, Newton is a larger city both in terms of population (about 19,000 residents versus 13,000) and size, at 12.6 square miles. While the Newton Police Department has more officers at 36, it also has more area to cover and is short-staffed at the moment, with four positions currently open.
Those numbers add up to 1.88 officers per 1,000 residents in Newton — the lowest ratio of all area cities in the study, with the exception of Wichita. Those numbers are something Dunlavy said could also play into the recent spike in violent crime rates.
"I think it has a contributing factor to it, I'm sure, because the fewer officers you have (the less you) can be proactive," Dunlavy said. "Just being seen in the community (can be) a deterrent to crime. That's why we have a highly visible vehicle is so that we're seen, so that deters people from committing crimes. That's just us being out in the community and involved in the community."
Like Golden, that proactive approach is important in Dunlavy's eyes. While the Newton Police Department has resource officers in the Newton schools, the staffing shortage does limit the number of instances it can be out and visible in the community to help improve safety from a hands-on standpoint.
Reporting practices are something that Dunlavy said could have also led to Newton's high violent crime numbers, as he noted his department is very thorough, logging incidents even if they do not go to court.
Dunlavy was also quick to point out that a number of the criminal issues stem from repeat offenders. Overall, he said 95 to 99% of Newton is a good, safe community. Whether getting out and playing pickup basketball games with area youths or leading ALICE training sessions with local businesses, both Dunlavy and Golden noted they are committed to getting involved in their communities to keep them as safe as possible.
"We're trying to reach out as much as we can and educate them (citizens), to help them feel safer where they're at so they know how to deal with a certain situation if it would come," Dunlavy said.
"We are always available to visit with the community and to discuss any issues," Golden said. "We love our community, we live in our community and we want to keep our community safe."