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Drop in homicides defies easy explanation

Hillsborough's decline, on a per capita basis, parallels a national decline. Theories on the reasons range from better investigative techniques to advances in emergency medical care, from patterns of drug use to changes in domestic violence programs.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002


TAMPA -- On the eighth floor of Tampa police headquarters, homicide detectives chronicle the final moments of the city's unluckiest citizens.

The name of each homicide victim is written in black marker on a giant board, followed by the location, the time and the manner of death.

In 2001, detectives wrote fewer names on the board than they did the previous year. When calculated on a per capita basis, the homicide rate in all of Hillsborough County was the lowest in at least 20 years.

Last year, there were 38 homicides in the city, compared with 41 in 2000. The drop was even more pronounced in unincorporated parts of the county, where sheriff's deputies handled 28 homicides in 2001, compared with 41 in 2000.

Like his Tampa police counterparts, Hillsborough County sheriff's Cpl. Mike Conigliaro Jr. keeps a list of the department's homicides by year, but Conigliaro keeps them in a black binder. In most cases, Conigliaro said, the victim knew his or her attacker. Drinking also played a part in nearly every crime.

"Bottom line is, they're all a tragedy," said Conigliaro. "Twenty-eight homicides are 28 tragic stories in our community."

Although robberies and other property crimes can be tied to the economy, the variation in homicide rates is less easily explained. Detectives and criminologists can only offer theories, which range from better investigative techniques to advances in emergency medical care, from patterns of drug use to changes in domestic violence programs.

Homicide is defined as the killing of one person by another. Murder is a legal term, defined as unlawfully killing another human being. The statistics in this story were drawn from local law enforcement and the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office. Medical Examiner Dr. Vernard Adams counts all homicides, including police shootings, in his statistics. Law enforcement agencies do not include police shootings when they tally their homicide numbers.

Some experts, such as University of South Florida criminologist Dwayne Smith, say homicide rates nationwide have been declining for more than a decade, but he cautions against drawing any conclusions.

"Blips go up and down," Smith said. "I don't think there's ever any prevailing reason. "If you look at it from a longer-term perspective, each shift tends to have its own story."

Gang activity, a proliferation of the local drug trade, an aggressive prosecution of domestic violence cases, or stiffer prison sentences for violent felons and drug dealers can influence a city's homicide rate. So can the number of young men and male teens in a city, because more crime is committed by that demographic than any other.

At the Tampa Police Department, Sgt. Jim Simonson points to the wall-sized board that lists the homicide victims' names. Listing the cases -- and showing that 17 are unsolved -- is an incentive for the detectives, he said.

-- Times staff writer Matthew Waite and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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