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Billboards could be playing role in Flint crime drop, officials say

Date: April 22, 2014

Summary:
Recent billboards placed around the city include asking for tips on arsons and homicides, attempting to stem the tide of illegal gun purchases and threatening federal prison time for carjacking.

Body:
FLINT, MI -- Arson, scrapping, carjacking and illegal guns.

For the past few months, billboards targeting these issues have welcomed travelers to Flint.

But, rather than scaring away would-be visitors with signs highlighting the city's violent-crime problem, officials say tourism in the area is growing and the signs may be helping play a role in a decrease in crime.

Recent billboards placed around the city include asking for tips on arsons and homicides, attempting to stem the tide of illegal gun purchases and threatening federal prison time for carjacking.

"There's a groundswell of support for Flint's fight against crime," Mayor Dayne Walling said. "It's been encouraging to see a number of different community groups step up and spread the message about reducing crime in Flint and telling residents how they can be part of the solution."

Flint police statistics show the city has experienced a 25 percent decrease in violent crime through the end of March compared to the same time period last year. Police also reported a drop in violent crime in 2013 compared to 2012.

Flint was even dethroned as the nation's most-violent large city after the Federal Bureau of Investigation released data from the first six months of 2013.

Walling was featured in a series of billboards placed around the area touting the anonymity of the city's new Crime Stoppers program, which launched earlier this year.

Julie Lopez, the Genesee County director of Crime Stoppers of Michigan, said it's difficult to tell exactly how much of an impact the billboards are having in the city, but she added that Crime Stoppers has received new tips in each unsolved Flint-area case it has advertised.

"I like to think it's making a difference," Lopez said of the billboard campaign.

Lopez and her family, prior to her time with Crime Stoppers, even paid out of pocket to create a billboard to help try and figure out who killed her father-in-law, political activist Pablo Lopez.

Pablo Lopez, 68, was found dead on July 9, 2011, in his Kansas Avenue home. He was shot to death, police said. There has yet to be an arrest in the case.

Crime Stoppers has been one of the more prolific users of billboards to spread its anti-crime message in the Flint area by placing billboards to advertise its anonymous tip line, seek information in specific homicide cases and launching a campaign to deter carjacking by highlighting that it can be punished with federal prison time.

Lopez declined to comment on the cost associated with the advertising campaign, but said her group makes purchases in specific areas that are hotspots for particular crimes it is focusing on or may have some sort of importance in an unsolved case it is advertising. 

Dale Scanlon said his group, the Citizen's Nuisance Task Force, spent roughly $5,000 to place anti-illegal scrapping billboards around the city. The billboards were only slated to be up for about a month, but some have just been taken down after crews were unable to get to them because of the snow.

The billboards aimed to bring awareness of two new city ordinances intended to combat illegal scrapping.

Scanlon said his group has received no feedback on the billboards so far, so it's difficult for them to determine how effective the campaign was.

However, Scanlon said he doesn't think all the billboards popping up around the city would scare away would-be visitors.

"I don't think it has any negative impact," Scanlon said of the advertisements.

Genesee County tourism officials say recent data would tend to agree with Scanlon.

Cheryl DeFrain, director of the Flint & Genesee Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the financial impact of tourism in Genesee County was up $3 million in 2013 to $123 million and area hotel reservations were up 5 percent in 2013. Reservations were up 12 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same timeframe last year.

DeFrain said the crime issue does come up when attempting to persuade groups to come to the Flint area, but she said the city's crime problem has never been a deal breaker.

"Once they come here they're just amazed at what we have," DeFrain said, noting the Flint Cultural Center and the county's extensive park system.

John Hill, 27, said he doesn't think the billboards would scare away would-be visitors. Hill, who commutes to Flint from Owosso to operate his downtown tattoo parlor, said he thinks most visitors would be more at ease to see that the city and residents are taking steps to combat crime.

"It seems like it would help," Hill said of the billboards.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation, which boasts a membership of more than 10,000 firearm manufacturers, distributors, retailers and others, announced March 4 that it would expand its "Don't Lie for the Other Guy" awareness program to the Flint area.

Mike Bazinet, a spokesperson for the NSSF, declined to say how much money the organization spent to bring the billboards to the city but said the campaign was in partnership with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The campaign lasted for roughly a month and targeted people making illegal straw purchases for people who could not legally purchase a firearm.

Bazinet said it's difficult to quantify the impact the billboards have, but said federal law enforcement leaders have noted the signs have had an impact in other cities they were placed in previously.

"It's hard to measure something that hasn't happened," Bazinet said, adding it's extremely unlikely anyone would admit to wanting to make an illegal straw purchase but being dissuaded by the billboards.

Lori Conarton, who serves on the Michigan Arson Prevention Committee, said her group spends about $1,000 per year advertising its arson tip line on billboards in Flint and other areas around the state.

"We think that a tip reward program can be a deterrent," Conarton said.

Unlike Crime Stoppers and the NSSF that make billboard purchases, Conarton said her organization relies on billboard companies to post her group's message as a public service announcement.

Conarton said her organization owns four vinyl signs that go up when an advertising company is unable to sell the space and they come down when the space gets sold.

"They've been all around the state," Conarton said of the billboards.


http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2014/04/numerous_anti-crime_billboards.html

 

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