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Tampa crime rate at 15-year low

That matches a statewide plunge, for which officials credit good times, harsher laws and more drug arrests.

By KATHRYN WEXLER and WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2000


TAMPA -- Not since 1984 has crime been so low in the city of Tampa. Rape, aggravated assault and larcenies all showed sharp declines in 1999.

Most striking, Tampa had 31 murders last year, a 23 percent drop from 1998.

Car thefts and burglaries increased slightly, but not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of Tampa police Chief Bennie Holder, who went to a City Council meeting Thursday and touted the 11 percent overall drop in crime.

"This is a very safe city," he happily told reporters.

Statewide, the crime rate, or number of crimes per 100,000 people, dropped 10.8 percent in 1999, the biggest decline since the state began keeping annual records three decades ago.

Every category of violent crimes declined in the state, with murders decreasing by 11.4 percent, from 966 two years ago to 856 last year.

The total number of crimes in Florida last year, 934,349, fell below 1-million for the first time in 13 years, even as the population increased.

Despite the good news in Tampa, the city's overall crime rate -- for every 1,000 residents, 108 were victims -- was almost twice as high as that of Hillsborough County or the state.

Tampa officials said the city's population swells each day with downtown workers and Ybor City revelers, skewing the figures.

"If you factored that in, we'd probably be right where everybody else is," police spokesman Steve Cole said.

Florida's top law enforcement official attributed the dramatic statewide drop to stiffer prison sentences, a continuing crackdown on drug crimes and a booming economy.

Some experts also credit less crack cocaine and other hard-core drug use, as well as a decline in the number of young males 15 to 24 years old, the group most likely to commit crimes.

But officials said the total number of crimes was still too high.

"I doubt very seriously that any of those 934,000 victims of that reported crime would see much good news," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore.

Unlike Tampa, where the number of the seven major crimes -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and vehicle theft -- fell last year, the unincorporated parts of Hillsborough County had an increase of 6.4 percent.

That was mostly due to an 8 percent jump in larcenies. Sheriff's Capt. Carl Hawkins said the increase was largely due to thefts in which less than $50 worth of property was stolen.

"We have a population that's increasing in Hillsborough County and an increase in property crimes," Hawkins said. "Larcenies that are very, very small in nature are driving these (figures) up."

More cars were stolen last year in both Tampa and unincorporated Hillsborough than in 1998, though Tampa had the bigger increase.

In the city, thieves ripped off 5,740 vehicles. In other words, 19 cars were stolen for every 1,000 residents.

"We're not happy, even if we've got 10 auto thefts around here," said Tampa police Sgt. M.D. Smith.

He said the department is working closer with prosecutors to jail car thieves longer, and there are plans to better train car rental shops and auto dealerships in theft prevention.

The Tampa Police Department allowed officers to chase car theft suspects after a huge spike in auto theft in 1994, when more than 11,000 vehicles were stolen. Holder noted that despite the 13 percent increase last year, the number of car thefts in the city is still about half what it was six years ago.

"You can only go so far and you're going to start to see (auto theft) creep up a little bit," Holder said. "They are committed by kids. The vast majority is joy riders."

In explaining the statewide decrease in crime, Moore pointed to an increase in drug arrests and Gov. Jeb Bush's "10-20-Life" law that went into effect last year.

The law jacks up sentences for crimes committed with a gun and has been widely publicized through a high-profile advertising campaign.

Statewide, crimes committed while using a firearms dropped 16.6 percent last year.

Bush said Thursday that the law sends a clear message: "Use a gun and your next home will be a state prison, and we do have room at the inn."

Keeping criminals behind bars also represses crime, Moore said. Statistics show inmates are spending more time in prison, due to get-tough measures in recent years, including a law mandating they serve 85 percent of their sentences.

Crime in Florida has been generally going down since the late 1980s. The decline mirrors a national trend.

Murder and robbery rates in the United States dropped to the lowest levels in three decades in 1998.

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