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Perception: Is reputation holding Lebanon back?

Written by Daniel Walmer, Lebanon Daily News | Feb 22, 2016 4:21 PM
lebanon downtown ldn 600x340.png

(Photo: Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

Mayor and police chief say the city doesn't have a worsening crime problem, and the numbers back them up.

(Lebanon) -- Lebanon's mayor and police chief say the city doesn't have a worsening crime problem, and the numbers back them up.

The city's crime rates have steadily declined over the past 10 years and are now about average for towns its size, according to an analysis of reported crime data.

When Bob Howard tries convincing teenage clients from Annville or Myerstown to visit his downtown business, however, he usually doesn't get very far.

"They firmly believe there is a gang problem in downtown Lebanon, and they target teens," said Howard, who owns Howard Studios at 738 Cumberland St.

Other Lebanon business owners said the city's reputation as a hotbed of crime is keeping people away from their front doors -- so much so that the issue featured prominently in the recent debate over creating a Business Improvement District in downtown Lebanon.

While Lebanon Police Chief David Wright has overseen a decline in actual crime within the city, he said there is no "magic pill" for changing people's perceptions.

Crime rate

Numbers provided by the Lebanon Police Department indicate that Part I crimes -- crimes like criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson that the national law enforcement community uses to compare crime rates over time and location -- have decreased from 1,400 in 2001 to 840 in 2015. Statistics from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program website show a similar downward trend.

Isolated crime data for the downtown business portion of Lebanon also indicates a decrease over time, Wright said.

There is a 1 in 324 chance of becoming a violent crime victim in Lebanon, slightly less than the state average, according to data from the website www.neighborhoodscout.com, which uses data and crime statistics from the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department to compare crime rates in every United States community. Lebanon's crime rates on the website rank around the middle of those of other Pennsylvania cities and boroughs of similar population.

To the extent that there is a crime problem in Lebanon, it is primarily one of theft. A person in Lebanon has a 1 in 41 chance of becoming a victim of a property crime, worse than the 1 in 52 odds throughout Pennsylvania, according to www.neighborhoodscout.com.

"Property crimes are a problem for us," Wright said.

Business owners and law enforcement officials said the region's problems with drug additions -- especially heroin -- and the ease with which stolen items can be sold likely contribute to that problem.

As for gangs, Wright said there have been members identified in Lebanon, particularly surrounding the narcotics trade. Local neighborhood "gangs" of young teenagers also occasionally surface. However, there is no wide-spread gang problem that jeopardizes the safety of the city, he said.

Ugly trash and attitudes 

When BID adviser Civitas Consultants surveyed downtown Lebanon business owners in January 2015, "almost everyone" mentioned the issue of safety but said it is primarily an issue of perception and they personally feel safe, according to a report the Silver Spring, Md.-based consultant provided to the city. Owners speculated in the report that litter and graffiti helped to create an air of neglect or danger, a theory echoed by Melody Vincent, owner of Lebanon Picture Frame & Fine Art Gallery, 45 S. Eighth St., in an interview.

"If you just add a splash of paint, or pick up trash, that creates the perception of a clean environment," Vincent said.

Howard, however, said one of the biggest problems may be a Pennsylvania Dutch mentality harbored by older Lebanon-area residents that resists changing demographics and perceived outsiders.

Melody Vincent, owner of Lebanon Picture Frame and Fine Art Gallery, 45 S. Eighth St., talks about crime and the perception of crime in downtown Lebanon on Wednesday, Feb. 10.

Timeless Café owner Pam Brightbill agreed. City residents who are homeless or live at a nearby personal-care facility frequently buy food at the café at 18 S. Eighth St., but she has never felt unsafe or been the victim of a crime.

"They're part of our community, and I think people need to change their perceptions," Brightbill said.

North side 

Business owners on the city's Hispanic northwest side also suffer at times from a negative stereotype.

Jose Ceballos said anyone who regularly visits his Ceballos Bakery at 381 N. Ninth St. would know he keeps the place clean and doesn't permit loitering. Despite advertising attempts, however, non-Hispanics are reluctant to stop by the neighborhood.

"It's sometimes hard because they don't want to come here," Ceballos said.

Some businesses on Lebanon's north side have become victims of fake checks or robberies, but the drug problem on Lehman Street has gotten much better in recent years, said Harold Davis, owner of Davis Computer at 545 Lehman St.

Overall, the rumor that northwest Lebanon is an epicenter of crime is unfounded, Wright said. Less than 20 percent of the city's crime occurs in the quadrant north of the railroad tracks and west of Eighth Street.

This graph illustrates the number of Part I crimes

This graph illustrates the number of Part I crimes reported to the Lebanon Police Department from 2001 through 2015. Part I crimes include offenses like criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson that the national law enforcement community uses to compare crime rates over time and location. Data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program show a similar downward trend in Lebanon. (Photo: Lebanon Daily News) 


This article is part of a content-sharing agreement between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

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