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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Less crime in the city, but St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster can't take all the credit

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is arming himself for re-election with a line about less crime in the city.

"Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade," he said in a campaign brochure.

PolitiFact Florida is keeping an ear out for claims by St. Petersburg mayoral candidates ahead of this year's election.

In this case, we already know the state's crime rate is at a 42-year low from news reports and a previous fact-check of Gov. Rick Scott. We wanted to look at Foster's claim about falling St. Petersburg crime and his actions to influence it.

We turned to crime reports filed by the St. Petersburg Police Department to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. We searched offenses, which include arrests and crimes in which no arrest was made, going back to 2002.

Using that data, St. Petersburg's crime rate yo-yoed from 2002 to 2004 before decreasing steadily until 2008. The crime rate spiked in 2009, largely due to an increase in aggravated assault, larceny, burglary and stolen cars.

What happened in 2010, Foster's first full year in office? The crime rate plunged to at least a 10-year low. The rate fell again in 2011 and again in 2012, down to 5,931 crimes per 1,000 residents. (It was 8,354 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2002.)

The biggest drop-offs occurred in the number of motor vehicle thefts, aggravated assaults, larcenies, burglaries and robberies, data show.

What's happening in St. Petersburg is happening across the country, so it's tough to figure out how much of an effect local law enforcement plays. The national crime rate has been declining over the past 20 years and is at its lowest points in some kinds of crime since the early 1960s, said William Ruefle, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg criminology professor who analyzes local crime.

Ruefle credits modern, smarter policing. There's also the all-time high rates of imprisonment around the country. A small number of people commit most crimes, so if they're locked up, there will likely be fewer infractions, he said.

When we asked Foster about his initiatives to reduce crime, he directed us to responses to two questions in his Tampa Bay Times editorial board questionnaire about the city's homelessness issue.

Foster pointed to several anticrime initiatives that happened during his tenure, including a ban on panhandling; a joint Police Department-Pinellas County Sheriff's Office task force focused on violent crime; new security cameras; the creation of a gun bounty program targeting weapons owned illegally; adding a late-night downtown patrol unit to accommodate later bar hours; and establishing a squad that aims to address crime where it's trending.

Should Foster take the credit for declining crime? To a degree, experts told us.

Most of the ideas came from the Police Department, said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who has led the department since 2001. He credited Foster as being a good listener with a keen interest in crime around the city. (According to Harmon, Foster is the first mayor to get his own radio call sign. It's X-0.)

"He knew what the problem was, but it was my staff's job to come up with the solution," Harmon said. "I will say he's been involved with all of those things he talked about in one way or another. He could nix it if he didn't like it."

Our ruling

Foster said, "Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade."

On the numbers, Foster is accurate. The crime rate is at its lowest since at least 2000. But in judging claims like these, we also must consider whether Foster is right to take credit for the drop. On that front, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, the mayor helped institute a number of new crime-fighting measures. But crime rates are down across the country, and it's unclear how much the new crime-fighting tools helped St. Petersburg's decline.

On balance, we rate the statement Mostly True.

This item has been edited for print. Read the full fact-check at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

The statement

"Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade."

Bill Foster, in a campaign brochure

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Pants on Fire
On the numbers, Foster is accurate. The crime rate is at its lowest since at least 2000. But whether Foster is right to take credit for the drop is not as clear. We rate the statement Mostly True.

PolitiFact: Less crime in the city, but St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster can't take all the credit 07/21/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 21, 2013 9:33pm]

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