Giddy is perhaps too strong a word to describe District Attorney Jim O’Neill. If you’ve ever met the man, you’ll know that “giddy” wouldn’t apply — under any circumstance.

Yet there was no mistaking his mood during a recent phone call. While “giddy” may have been over the top, upbeat, excited, even chipper, definitely fit the bill.

“Have you seen the story yet?” he said, dispensing with customary greetings to get right to the meat of the matter.

Winston-Salem — and by extension, Forsyth County — had just been ranked as the “Safest City in North Carolina” by one online publication or another.

And O’Neill, the guy elected overwhelmingly to see that members of the community can feel safe in the streets and at home felt like it merited some mention.

There are worse things

There are far worse things for which Winston-Salem could be mentioned than being safe.

In December 2011, for example, Men’s Health rated us as the 15th worst among the Saddest Cities in America. Editors there used fancy mapping software to look at such things as suicide and unemployment rates and the relative use of anti-depressants to derive their rankings.

We can’t remember which city came in first (last?) because we were too bummed to look.

On a more uplifting note, Winston-Salem has consistently been noted in recent years as being a swell place for retirees. Forbes and CNNMoney.com, among others, lauded us for our proximity to a goodly number of colleges and universities, a large number of doctors per capita, a moderate climate and plenty of K&W Cafeterias.

But as these things go, being ranked the safest city in North Carolina — and 21st out of the 150 most populated cities in the United States — is actually something of which to be proud. (Imagine how that’s going to help with the retirement lists.)

Anyhow, WalletHub, an online personal finance site, compared 182 American cities on some 41 different measures of personal safety — including the number of mass shootings, the unemployment rate, quality of roads and crime rates.

In North Carolina, we topped Raleigh (22nd), Durham (46th), Charlotte (53rd), Greensboro (60th) and Fayetteville (112th). Nationwide, Columbia, Md., was rated best and St. Louis worst.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, what kind of car you drive, what your job is, if you don’t feel safe walking around in the community, it’s not worth it,” O’Neill said.

True thing.

If you can’t walk to your car at night without looking over your shoulder, fearing that your kid’s school might get shot up or wonder whether you’re likely to get mugged while Christmas shopping, then precious little else matters.

Matter of focus

The difference in Winston-Salem, as compared to other cities and towns, is a matter of perspective and being able to distinguish what’s important and what works.

“If you believe, as I do, that a small percentage of the community is what drives violent crime and we get law enforcement to focus on that small percentage and pluck them out of society, violent crime will go down,” O’Neill said.

Put another way, whether or not anyone will say so out loud, some crimes count more than others.

A focus on so-called “lifestyle crimes” — public urination, small-time drug possession and non-violent misdemeanors that clog the court system can have a detrimental effect. Everybody wants more cops on the street, but paying for them is a balancing act.

Forsyth County spends its time on early screening of violent offenses. For example, once a month at a standing meeting, investigators and prosecutors review all crimes committed with guns to see if a conviction might net a longer sentence in federal court than the state system.

And we also had — at 62 percent — the highest conviction rate in the state for defendants charged with sexual assault crimes against adults. Statewide, the conviction rate was 24 percent.

We also spend a fair amount of time helping low-level, nonviolent offenders with such seemingly simple things as regaining driving privileges and treatment options for drug users.

“We work together here, the Winston-Salem Police, ICE, the sheriff’s office and the highway patrol,” O’Neill said. “Chief (Katrina) Thompson and Sheriff (Bobby) Kimbrough do a great job reaching out to the community so people will cooperate. We need witnesses (in order) to prosecute.”

If O’Neill sounds like a guy running for higher office, it’s because he is. He recently filed paperwork to run for state attorney general.

Still, there worse platforms than talking about being the safest city in the state. “Best Place to Retire” isn’t a particularly catchy campaign slogan.

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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