Has Fort Mill become less safe as it's grown? The facts may surprise you

This circa 1957 photo of Campbell's Cleaners and the Fort Mill Police Department when they sat side by side where the police department is now. The department has grown over the past few decades to keep up with the town's enormous growth. Records show that crime has not increased proportionally with the town's population and physical size has grown.
This circa 1957 photo of Campbell's Cleaners and the Fort Mill Police Department when they sat side by side where the police department is now. The department has grown over the past few decades to keep up with the town's enormous growth. Records show that crime has not increased proportionally with the town's population and physical size has grown.

It's a conversation that pops up when violent crime hits Fort Mill: Is the town more dangerous now than it once was?

Amid news of a child pointing a gun at two others on the final night of the recent South Carolina Strawberry Festival, some Fort Mill natives went beyond the incident to lament, at least online, a town in change. Facebook users commented the town "sure has changed," that it's "not the same small town anymore" or even that they weren't shocked the incident happened.

Some commented they "can't stand going" to their hometown due to how big it's gotten, or they "don't go anymore."

The Strawberry Festival incident wasn't the first to draw such a response. In January, another iconic Fort Mill location was the scene of a deadly shooting when employee Karson Bailey Whitesell, 19, was killed at The Peach Stand. Police concluded it was a random attack. People asked why it seems crime is increasing in Fort Mill.

Replies mentioned people moving here from larger cities, Fort Mill becoming "Charlotte Lite" and that "more people always seems to equate to more crime."

So, are they right?

Some measures suggest there is more to the story.

The U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation list crime data reported by the Fort Mill Police Department from 1985 to 2014. The population nearly tripled in that time.

While crime totals rose during that span, the crime rate didn’t follow so neat a line. There were 106 reported violent crimes at a peak in 2009, but an average of only 35 in the next five years despite a coverage area increase of more than 2,000 people.

From 1985 to 1990, there were an average of 26 violent crimes a year. But the total in 1986 (32) was higher than in 2014 (31) despite an almost tripled population. The 2013 total of 23 violent crimes was surpassed 12 times from 1985 to 2000, including all but two years from 1985 to 1990.

Individual crimes show the same trend of, well, little trend at all. Certain years spike.

There were almost twice as many rapes reported in 1998 as in any other year. The population then was less than half of what it was in 2014. Peak years for robberies were 2004, 2002 and 2006, but 2012 and 2013 ranked among the lowest years on record.

There was one fewer aggravated assault reported in 2013 than in 1985, with only 1999 having fewer among all years reported. There were more such assaults in the first three years of data than the last three.

"There's going to be a certain increase in the number of incidents," Maj. Bryan Zachary with the Fort Mill Police Department said of population growth, "but those are typically going to be property crimes."

Property crimes tracked a little closer to coverage area population, which rose through 1989 in Fort Mill, but dipped before recovering to surpass that high point more than a decade later.

Property crime — burglaries, larcenies — totals can be influenced heavily by new business as well as population growth. A new big box store could add a significant number of reports compared to the year before it opened.

Still, the per capita property crime rates may surprise some residents concerned with population growth. The four lowest years are 2011-2014. In that time the crime rate was about half of what it was three decades earlier.

The same holds true for violent crime, where the lowest rates on record are 2013, 2012 and 2014. A Fort Mill resident was more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in 1986 than in 2012-2014, despite there being more than twice as many people.

While violent crimes do happen, the rate of them is "extremely low by comparison" to other municipalities and overall are "relatively few and far between," Zachary said.

"The statistics bear that out," he said.

Fort Mill isn't alone in seeing its population grow, as unincorporated York County, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Indian Land face similar challenges. Fort Mill isn't alone among those communities in its crime trending, either.

Violent and property crime in York County ebbed and flowed from 1985 to 2014. Burglaries hit a high point in 1987-1992. The most rapes occurred in 2002, and the last two years of data were almost identical to the first two. Murder or manslaughter peaks came in 1990, 1993 and 1998 with 9 such incidents each year.

The most violent crimes occurred in 2003. The most property crimes occurred in 2002.

Because communities can vary widely in population, per capita crime is a common way of comparison. Fort Mill and Tega Cay have made several lists in recent years for safest municipalities statewide. The town and city also regularly make lists of highest-growth communities.

Just this year, The National Council for Home Safety and Security ranked Tega Cay third and Fort Mill sixth among safe municipalities in South Carolina. The same group ranked Tega Cay first and Fort Mill second a year ago. Those and related rankings rely on federal data submitted by municipalities, factoring in per capita crime.

Lt. Buddy Spence with the Tega Cay Police Department said there is a reason — simple math — why there seems to be more crime as population increases. Even if, data shows, there isn't a straight-line connection with a rise in violent crime.

"As the population grows, naturally calls for service are going to increase," he said. "That's just the nature of the business."

It's continued work in and with a community, he said, that helps law enforcement avoid more growing pains than are necessary. Staying connected is what helps departments do their job well.

"We just remain in strong contact with our community," Spence said. "We do our best."

That contact is critical, Zachary said.

"We have a considerable amount of communication and cooperation," he said. "As the area has grown, our department has grown."

In 1980, Fort Mill had 4,162 residents. That number rose to just 4,930 by 1990. By 1996, the police department had just 12 officers.

As of mid-2016, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are more than 15,000 Fort Mill residents. The town has more than 60 officers and staff members.

Many of the same factors that bring new residents also bring property crimes. Tools are stolen from construction sites. Large retailers locate where people are, but also bring more items someone could steal. Convenience to I-77 is attractive to residents, Zachary said, but potentially to someone looking to commit a crime and flee.

Police have measures to curb property crimes. They can add patrols in problem areas. Violent crimes typically aren't so predictable.

When violent crimes happen in a highly visible area, as happened at the Peach Stand, a community takes notice.

"That was just significantly tragic," Zachary said of the Peach Stand shooting. "Of course any crime like that is going to be tragic, but with that situation it's one of the most significant incidents that's happened in Fort Mill."

So he understands why a community may feel unsettled in the aftermath, even when the numbers tell a deeper story.

"It is very notable, and it does probably give the perception that things have changed," Zachary said.

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