The two Republican candidates for Hernando County sheriff disagree on a lot of points — among the biggest, the county's crime statistics.
Bobby Sullivan, a retired Pasco County sheriff's captain who worked under Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis in Pasco for six years, recently sent a campaign mailer to voters stating that crime has "skyrocketed" since Nienhuis took over in Hernando in January 2011.
"During his first year in office the crime rate increased 13.2%," the mailer says.
During a debate last week hosted by the Tampa Bay Times, Nienhuis criticized Sullivan for misrepresenting the county's crime statistics and unnecessarily alarming residents.
Sullivan says Nienhuis, who was appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist to take over when Sheriff Rich Nugent was elected to Congress, is misleading voters by spinning the crime statistics for his own political gain.
"The spin he puts on it is highly suspect," Sullivan said.
So what is really happening with crime in Hernando County?
First, some basics.
Every six months, local law enforcement agencies submit data to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for seven categories of crime: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. The statistics are summarized annually in the FDLE's Universal Crime Report.
There is an important distinction between two numbers included in the report.
The annual crime index is the total number of those seven crimes reported during a year. In 2011, Hernando's index was 5,219.
The crime rate is the ratio of those crimes to the population. The rate for Hernando County last year was 3,156 crimes for every 100,000 residents. With some simple division, it can be expressed as 3.156 crimes for every 100 residents.
According to the report, Hernando's crime index increased by 2.9 percent in 2011, but the crime rate decreased by 1.7 percent.
So what about Sullivan's claim that the rate increased by 13.2 percent during Nienhuis' first year in office?
Sullivan said his campaign read a Tampa Bay Times story from November 2011 that summarized a semiannual report released by FDLE. The story noted that crime was on a downward trend in Florida and in Tampa Bay counties, except for Hernando, where crime was up 13 percent. Sullivan said his camp confirmed the number through the Universal Crime Report.
But there are several problems with that number.
The 13.2 percent figure was listed in the FDLE report as the increase in the crime index, not the crime rate, and it was only for the first six months of the year. Crime rates are only calculated on an annual basis.
Finally, the number was wrong anyway because of a reporting error by a Sheriff's Office employee, Nienhuis said.
Last July, the staffer inadvertently sent a crime report that included figures through June 30 plus the first 19 days of July, Nienhuis said. Those extra days, he said, skewed the crime index.
Nienhuis said the error wasn't caught until the end of the year. The final annual report reflect the correct figures: Crime index up 2.9 percent, crime rate down 1.7 percent.
"I can't speak to his reporting error," Sullivan said. "I can only speak to the data I had."
But assuming for a moment that the 13.2 percent figure was accurate, Sullivan's mailer states the crime rate went up that much, and did so "during (Nienhuis') first year in office." The mailer seems to assert that the increase is for the entire year, not just the first six months.
Sullivan acknowledged the possible confusion.
"If people read it that way, it wasn't the intent," he said.
Sullivan notes that Hernando's modest dip in the crime rate was far lower than those in other counties in the region. Pasco and Citrus counties, for example, saw decreases of 9.6 percent and 10.2 percent, respectively.
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So which figure should residents consider when gauging the safety of the community?
Nienhuis says the crime rate is the best number to use when comparing an agency's performance over time because it factors in changes in the population.
"The sheriff is correct," said Stewart J. D'Alessio, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University in Miami. "You should always take into account population. If you just had an influx of people coming into the county, crime would go up just for the sheer increase in people."
The population in the unincorporated area of Hernando County served by the Sheriff's Office increased by 7,390 between 2010 and 2011.
Sullivan says there is plenty of value in the raw crime numbers, too.
"We need to keep it as simple as possible," he said. "The mere increase in people does not necessarily equal an increase in crimes. It's easier to look at crimes that occurred."
He has criticized Nienhuis for saying the Sheriff's Office can't prevent the number of crimes from rising. Nienhuis says he has always maintained that an agency can only prevent some crime.
Law enforcement agencies, the sheriff says, should be held most accountable for clearance rates.
An agency's clearance rate is, essentially, the percentage of crimes solved. Also included are crimes that are classified as "exceptionally cleared" if a perpetrator is identified but cannot be arrested and charged for a reason beyond the agency's control. In addition, there are cases classified as "unfounded," meaning investigators determine a crime reported to the agency never occurred in the first place.
Nienhuis boasts that the clearance rate for the Hernando Sheriff's Office is the highest it's been in 20 years. The statistics bear that out.
In 2011, the rate was 36.3 percent. That's 5.6 percentage points higher than in 2010 and nearly 10 percentage points higher than in 1991.
Sullivan questions how the clearance rate can be so high when the arrest rate is the lowest it's been in 15 years.
"It defies logics, and it defies mathematics," Sullivan said.
He stopped short, however, of accusing the agency of manipulating data by inappropriately classifying some crimes as exceptionally cleared or unfounded.
Nienhuis noted the actual number of arrests increased by 298 in 2011. The number of exceptionally cleared cases increased by 24. And, as Sullivan has pointed out, the crime index increased.
"If you were manipulating it, like hiding cases, you'd think you'd make less arrests," Nienhuis said. "If we're unfounding cases, our index would go down. You wouldn't even see them."
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So how much credit can a new sheriff like Nienhuis take for a lower crime rate?
Despite the Great Recession, crime is on a downward trend nationwide. In Florida, last year's rate was the lowest it's been in 41 years, the FDLE announced in April. Experts say the likely reasons range from an aging population to increased technology that helps police prevent crime.
"Crime has gone down everywhere," said D'Alessio, the criminal justice professor. "Whether (the sheriff) was responsible for that is debatable."
Nienhuis said he can take some credit, just as he would have taken responsibility had the rate increased. But the rank and file workers at the Sheriff's Office are the ones largely responsible for solving crimes, he said.
"My job is to give them the tools and opportunities to do the job," he said, "and they obviously did a good job last year."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.