When meeting with groups of local residents, Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman often asks a simple question to gauge public perception — “Do you think crime is increasing in Forsyth County?”
And frequently, according to Freeman, people answer that, yes, they do feel as if crime is becoming more prevalent in the county.
"Then I ask them, 'How many robberies do you think we had in Forsyth County?’" Freeman said on Wednesday morning. "And inevitably I'll get 40, 50, and 60 as numbers; sometimes I get 100, 200 or something like that ... and then I'll tell them that we had nine last year.”
Despite the fact that Forsyth County has some of the lowest crime rates in the metro-Atlanta area, Freeman says that there is a public perception that Forsyth County is somehow more dangerous or prone to crime than it once was in the past.
"I think the perception is, with the rapid and continued growth that Forsyth County is seeing and feeling, the traffic congestion, all those things, and then you see some more stuff on your newsfeed or whatever the case is, a common perception might be that maybe crime is up," he said. "But the great part is, when you look at the numbers, crime is actually down.”
What does the data show?
According to Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office crime statistics, from January of 2017 to July of 2019, the sheriff’s office saw decreases in homicide, aggravated assault, larceny, rape, simple assault, vandalism, weapons offenses and family violence.
Compared to eight other metro-Atlanta counties and the city of Atlanta, in 2018 Forsyth County had the lowest rates of robbery, aggravated assault, larceny, and the second-lowest rates of murder, rape and burglary, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Crime Statistics Database.
"The numbers bear out that we are on track to have another really good year," he said.
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Metro Atlanta crime statistics, 2018
Source: GBI Crime Statistics Database
Though mostly down overall, over that same multi-year period there have also been several areas where the crime rate in Forsyth County has actually gone up.
Data shows that between the months of January to July in 2017, 2018, and 2019,
the sheriff’s office recorded rises in the amount of motor vehicle thefts,
fraud, forgery, sex offenses and disorderly conduct.
Freeman doesn’t necessarily consider those increases totally negative. In many cases, like with a string of vehicle break-ins that occurred earlier in the year and a computer crime sex sting operation that was recently carried out, the cases were cleared and the criminals responsible were caught.
Crime data, Freeman said, has been one of their greatest weapons in the constant fight to decrease crime. With specialized software, the sheriff’s office is able to map where crime happens throughout Forsyth County and can put areas in “boxes” that can be specifically targeted by deputies.
“The biggest thing is it’s working,” he said. “The data-driven policing that we do, the technology and software, and then the deputies buying into that process.”
Where does the perception come from?
The public perception that crime is going up, Freeman said, ironically, is likely due to how well the sheriff’s office is actually doing coupled with his administration’s enthusiastic approach to social media.
Freeman campaigned on with a promise to be more transparent on crime as sheriff, and since taking office he says that their social media presence has grown dramatically. Regularly the sheriff’s office releases information via its Facebook page and other platforms, pushing out information on everything from crime and dash-camera footage showing car chases to award photos and PSA’s.
But the posts that are by far the most popular are the ones about crime. Freeman said that by pushing out more information about crime online and in the media, more people see Forsyth County crime-related stories than they used to.
"I think when you add all that up, it's in your face more, it's on your phone, it's on your Facebook feed and it’s in your news feed," he said.
While that perception doesn’t directly affect the job they perform in the community, Freeman said it can erode the trust that they need to be effective law enforcement officers, because what people perceive to be real can become their reality.
"What we do is based on trust," he said. "Everything the sheriff's office does within our community for the most part, at its core level, is based on trust between the community and us. And if the community feels that they're not safe, then that erodes into that trust factor.”
That’s why on top of posing about crime and criminals, Freeman says they take every opportunity to highlight the crime-fighting tactics they use and the skill of their deputies.
“We want our folks to know that even though crime isn't prevalent here, when it does happen, our deputies are really, really good at catching bad guys,” he said.
For right now, Freeman says that the sheriff’s office is in a good spot, balancing new crime trends, threats that come from outside of the county, all the usual crime that any community deals with and everything else the sheriff’s office is responsible for.
But they are working on a multi-year strategic plan for their tactics and preparing as the county continues to grow and change.
“There will be a day as we grow more and more ... eventually we will hit a saturation point, and I'll never be able to get burglaries to zero, I'll never get entering autos to zero," he said. "That's not acceptable to me, but its reality.”