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    Serious crimes drop in Tarpon, Oldsmar

    Throughout Pinellas, crime is on the wane. The sheriff attributes the decrease to stiffer criminal penalties and greater efficiency, including community policing.

    By ED QUIOCO and KATHERINE GAZELLA

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


    The number of serious crimes reported in Tarpon Springs and Oldsmar dropped last year, and the rate at which crimes were committed in both cities remained below the countywide rate, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

    Major crime in Tarpon Springs dropped in six of seven key categories tracked by law enforcement during 2000. Oldsmar recorded decreases in four of seven categories. Because Palm Harbor and East Lake are not incorporated communities, the FDLE does not have separate crime statistics for those areas.

    There could be several reasons for the decreasing crime rates in most cities in Pinellas County, said Sheriff Everett Rice.

    "I think it's a combination of things: the tightening of criminal penalties; improvements in the economy; and we are becoming more efficient with our work, and one of those things is the community-policing concept," Rice said Thursday.

    During a year when Pinellas County's population grew by 2.5 percent, the number of serious crimes reported in the county dropped by 5.2 percent, according to the FDLE.

    When the number of serious crimes committed is compared with the population, the county's crime rate fell even more, 7.5 percent.

    In Tarpon Springs, the crime rate dropped by 7.1 percent from 1999 to 2000. The number of murders, rapes, robberies, burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts all dropped. The number of aggravated assaults rose slightly.

    Capt. Bob Kochen said he was pleased by the lower crime rate, but he said a truer measure of the department's effectiveness is an improved quality of life in the city.

    "Statistics really don't impress me all that much," he said. "It's the quality of life that matters."

    The city had a rate of 4,385 crimes per 100,000 people, compared with 5,356 crimes per 100,000 people in Pinellas County.

    Tarpon Springs had no murders, six rapes and 21 robberies in 2000, compared with two murders, 13 rapes and 28 robberies the previous year. There were 153 aggravated assaults, 203 burglaries, 509 larcenies and 29 vehicle thefts in 2000, compared with 147 aggravated assaults, 230 burglaries, 520 larcenies and 32 vehicle thefts in 1999.

    Kochen said the solid economy in the last decade helped to lower the crime rate. When people have jobs, he said, they are less likely to commit crimes.

    He also pointed to community policing, beautification projects throughout the city and partnerships with community groups, such as the Citizens Alliance for Progress in the Union Academy neighborhood. The Tarpon Springs Housing Authority has worked well with the Police Department and made an effort to bring in better tenants, he said.

    "The police cannot do it ourselves," he said.

    In Oldsmar, the rate of serious crimes per 100,000 Pinellas County residents during 2000 decreased by 8.1 percent, from 4,383 to 4,030. The city had no murders, eight rapes and 16 robberies in 2000.

    Property crimes were more common than violent crimes in Oldsmar. In 2000 there were 296 larcenies, 26 motor vehicle thefts and 102 burglaries in the city, which is patrolled by the Sheriff's Office.

    Oldsmar has never really had a problem with crime, said Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland.

    "We have been lucky," Beverland said. "We really have. I hope the luck stays. I praise the people for being law-abiding."

    There were slight increases in the number of reported rapes, robberies and burglaries, but there was a larger decrease in the number of larcenies, from 340 in 1999 to 296 in 2000.

    The number of major crimes in Oldsmar went down from 511 in 1999 to 480 in 2000, a 6.1 percent decrease.

    That's a trend that mirrors most of the cities in Pinellas.

    "We don't have the serious violence that some of the urban centers have," Rice said. "Most calls for our police service are not for serious crimes, they are for regulatory matters" such as speeding, vandalism and dog complaints.

    Rice pointed to Oldsmar's contract with the Sheriff's Office for a community policing officer as a possible reason why crime has gone down. A community policing officer's main job is "to get out of their car and get on the street and get to know people," Rice said.

    "The concept for community policing is it brings the local police with the residents," Rice said. "It's a partnership to improve the quality of life in their neighborhood."

    The FDLE last week released a detailed breakdown of major crimes reported and crime rates for individual cities and counties throughout Florida. The major crimes -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft -- are known as index crimes because they are used to measure and track trends in communities nationwide.

    Countywide, the number of index crimes dropped from 52,067 in 1999 to 49,359 last year. Meanwhile, the rate of serious crimes per 100,000 Pinellas County residents dropped from 5,793 during 1999 to 5,356 last year.

    Most property crimes are crimes of opportunity so there are several things residents can do to protect themselves. The should make sure everything is locked, even their cars while they are parked at home, keep garage doors closed, have security lighting on their property and get involved in a neighborhood crime watch, where "citizens become the eyes and ears of police," Rice said.

    "Even though we are glad to see the crime rate continue to go down, I don't want people to get complacent," Rice said. "I want them to remember the tips and the things that we tell them to help prevent crime."

    - Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183. Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182.

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