Burglary, theft send crime rate soaring

Experts say it's too early to determine a long-term trend, but the numbers have the Sheriff's Office increasing efforts to deter crime. One tip: Lock your doors.

Published September 24, 2006

Thou shalt not steal. In Pasco County this summer, that commandment took a beating.

A man left a store with steak in his pants. Another burglarized a mechanic shop and took beer from the employee refrigerator. A woman stole makeup and toenail clippers and a single avocado.

Copper tubes and wires disappeared from new homes and underground conduits. Psychotropic drugs vanished from a teacher break room at Hudson Elementary School. Gasoline leaked from pickups through holes drilled by a stolen drill.

The theft of a $100,000 digging machine from a Moon Lake construction site was one of 1,278 serious crimes in unincorporated Pasco County in June, making it the highest single-month total in more than five years.

July was even worse.

In the first eight months of 2006, the crime index - which includes murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and theft - rose more than 17 percent over the same period last year.

Nearly all of that jump came from burglary and theft.

If the trend holds through December - and it might not, because the numbers decreased in August - it would be the county's largest single-year crime increase in at least 17 years.

But it is hard to say why.

And one expert said the numbers are meaningless.

* * *

Florida's crime problem reached its apex in 1989, when one index crime was reported for every 11 residents. It fell steadily after that, as it did across the nation, and today, the per capita rate is barely half of that of 1989.

In Pasco, even as a housing boom in the central and southeast parts of the county drove a massive population increase, the total number of index crimes fell slightly between 1998 and 2005.

Now crime seems to be rising again. Is this cause for alarm?

The Times sent the data to several Florida criminologists and asked for their interpretations. They said it's too early to tell.

Ron Akers, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of Florida, said the nationwide crime drop has pushed rates back to those seen in the 1960s and has left the United States with a crime rate lower than that of Great Britain. He said the two-decade decline may be over, but that's no reason to think chaos is imminent.

John Cochran, associate chairman of the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, blamed the war.

"Crime rates across the country appear to be on the rise again," he said in an e-mail. "My speculation is that the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the enhanced and concentrated efforts of Homeland Security, have diverted funds, manpower and interest away from domestic issues, including crime control."

Pasco is not the only Florida jurisdiction to see crime increase this year. Index crime was up 3.5 percent in unincorporated Pinellas County in the first half of 2006 and up 11.5 percent in Hernando.

But Gary Kleck of Florida State University said crime statistics plunge and soar from county to county and year to year.

"Any one year's swing cannot be taken seriously," he said in an e-mail. "And a swing based on just six months should be given even less weight."

Besides, Kleck said, the crime index reflects only certain types of crime - and only those that people bother to report. That makes it an incomplete indicator.

"I was once quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying something like, 'Most crime statistics are garbage,' " he said. "While I wish I had phrased it a little more elegantly, that still basically summarizes things."

* * *

Nevertheless, the Sheriff's Office goes by the numbers. And during the summer, deputies did what they could to squelch them. Detectives worked weekends and canceled vacations. Commanders demanded daily reports from the Crime Analysis Division. Analysts marked the location of each incident, and property crime covered the map like a cluster of balloons.

Theft from construction sites proliferated, and Capt. Alan Weinstein, the Sheriff's Office's director of investigations, explained why it is so hard to prevent.

Much of it happens in broad daylight amid a flurry of activity. The culprits are often subcontractors with good excuses to be there. As colleagues come and go, they simply load up the goods and slip away. Days pass before the items are missed.

In June, partly in response to construction theft, the agency formed a property crimes task force. Sheriff's Lt. Mike Schreck led the charge. His e-mailed reports to his superiors offer a glimpse into the game.

June 9: The prowler complaint from last night was unfounded as we developed info the suspect was the victim's daughter's boyfriend. We had a prayer meeting with him.

June 17: Balderstone spoke to the security guard at Watergrass who told him the foreman from KB Homes knows who did the 15 burglaries the other night under the nose of their security guard. It was a disgruntled employee.

June 19: We charged the defendant with three auto burglaries. The defendant was intoxicated, on drugs and homeless. He reported he did many burglaries but could not remember where they were. We believe they were on Richwood and Morehead. A good time was had by all.

Another internal document from the Sheriff's Office gives insight that civilians can use. It says 53 percent of all thefts occur in vehicles or buildings that are left unlocked.

In other words, here's the easiest way to fight property crime:

Lock your doors.

By the Numbers

Unincorporated Pasco County's crime numbers jumped from the first half of last year to the first half of this year. But most of the change came in nonviolent crimes:

Residential burglary: Up 18 percent

Nonresidential burglary: 33 percent

Bicycle theft: 45 percent

Theft from motor vehicle: 56 percent

Aggravated assault: 8 percent

Source: Pasco County Sheriff's Office