Ask residents around eastern Hillsborough County which way crime is going, and many will need only a one-word answer: up.
The singular question — Do you feel crime is on the rise? — produced a dozen replies with common themes.
Those who answered said crime in eastern Hillsborough had gone up or stayed the same. They had something else in common, too.
They're all wrong.
Crime during the first quarter of this year dropped in almost every major category in sheriff's Districts 2 and 4 compared to the same period in 2007, Sheriff's Office figures show.
The drop has been dramatic in some categories. Auto theft fell nearly 23 percent in District 2, which comprises areas north of Brandon's Lumsden Road. It also fell nearly 27 percent in District 4, which includes neighborhoods south of Lumsden Road. There were double-digit drops in robberies and burglaries of businesses in both districts.
Two exceptions to the downward trend: Home burglaries in District 2 jumped 7 percent and vehicle burglaries increased 2 percent in District 4.
The numbers from January through May look similar in Tampa, where residential burglaries dropped nearly 14 percent from a year ago, according to the Tampa Police Department. Auto theft and several types of robberies are also less frequent in Tampa so far this year.
"I think the perception is from everybody reading newspapers and watching television news," sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. "A lot of times, people don't realize that they are listening to crime in other states, in other jurisdictions, or national news."
Some residents pointed to specific crimes. Margaret Hodgson of Seffner reported a "rash of crime" in her Parsons Pointe subdivision, including stolen lawn equipment from two homes.
Terry Moore of Brandon scans the weekly crime report published in newspapers.
"I try to get a feel for what is happening," Moore said. "Lately, incidents seem to have increased slightly."
Asked if it would surprise him to learn crime had gone down, Moore replied, "Probably."
In Sun City Center, Joye Gasser said she hadn't noticed a crime increase this year, but said the area is victimized seasonally by "professional gypsy thieves" who ransack seasonal residents' homes.
"They come in cars and dress where they look like they belong in the community," said Gasser, 77. "They're in and out very quickly."
As for the Sheriff's Office crime statistics, Gasser said, "I doubt very seriously if it's really going down."
Deputy Rob Thornton, who patrols Sun City Center, said most burglaries this summer have resulted from school-aged youths rifling through unlocked cars, not organized groups of criminals.
Rising gas prices have some residents worried about theft. Several people in Jerry Tootle's Apollo Beach neighborhood formed an informal crime-watch group to deter gasoline thieves. After someone siphoned the gas from his tank, Tootle said he had to drive to Brandon to find an auto parts store that had locking gas caps in stock.
He didn't bother to report the crime, and speculated that people shrugging off minor thefts could explain the apparent decrease.
"If there was real property damage I would report it," he said.
Jessica DeLeon of Advance Auto Parts in Ruskin said, "People are buying more locking gas caps in the last month."
But that could reflect a fear of crime as much as actual thefts. And why wouldn't residents fear crime, some might ask, given the ubiquitous signs along highways posted by the Sheriff's Office asking motorists to "Please help us," and a culture that seems obsessed with crime?
"Most people are not very knowledgeable about crime, but they have very strong opinions about it," said University of South Florida criminologist James Unnever,
Crime has been steadily dropping for the past decade, Unnever said, and hit record lows in the past few years.
Theories about why range from an aging baby-boom population to a stabilized crack cocaine market in the underworld.
Though the question to local residents only covered three months out of the year, the results mirror the national data.
"If you ask whether crime is going up or down," Unnever said, "close to half think it's increasing when it's decreasing."
He blames opportunistic politicians who drum up the fear of crime and an insatiable media appetite for it. He rejects the notion that tougher economic times cause more people to commit crimes.
His USF colleague, criminologist Richard Dembo, isn't so sure. "Economic downturns are associated with an increase in crime, particularly in property crimes," Dembo said.
If people feel engaged in society and that they have a stake in toeing the line for their advancement, they are more likely to be more social.
If they feel more disconnected and are having hard times, people who are at risk are more likely to go over the line and engage in criminal activity.
"We may see an increase in crime, if over time the economy doesn't improve," he said.
Times staff writer Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or email@example.com.
Only few categories show increase
Sheriff's District 2 (north of Lumsden Road)
|Crime||Jan.-May 2007||Jan.-May 2008||% change|
|Burglary - business||234||200||-14.5|
|Burglary - residence||483||517||7|
|Burglary - vehicle||604||585||-3.1|
|Robbery - business||54||40||-25.9|
Sheriff's District 4 (Lumsden Road and south)
|Crime||Jan.-May 2007||Jan.-May 2008||% change|
|Burglary - business||245||189||-22.9|
|Burglary - residence||772||556||-28|
|Burglary - vehicle||731||748||2.3|
|Robbery - business||44||37||-15.9|
|Robbery - person||61||48||-21.3|
Source: Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office