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Florida crime keeps falling, and experts and law enforcement search for why

Although Florida's economy continues to sputter four years after the start of the Great Recession, the state's financial and unemployment woes can't slow down one impressive trend: Crime continues to plunge.

Crime in Florida has plummeted nearly 33 percent since 1999, including nearly 13 percent since shortly after the recession began in late 2007. Tampa Bay's crime rate also has fallen during that time — about 25 percent in Hillsborough, 8 percent in Pinellas and 14 percent in Pasco.

A declining crime rate in times of economic despair — especially when law enforcement budgets are shrinking as officers fight a burgeoning prescription drug abuse epidemic — seems counterintuitive. But the crime drop is fairly consistent nationwide, and experts even say the trend is occurring globally.

Although no one can say for sure why crime is lessening, some theories are coming into focus:

Technology is helping police prevent crime. The population is getting older. Even low inflation — of all things — is likely playing a role.

• • •

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said that for years, experts looking at economic data for clues about crime paid attention mostly to the unemployment rate.

But Rosenfeld suggests that may be too narrow. He is working on a study exploring the relationship between inflation and crime.

This recession, just like the Great Depression, has been marked by low inflation, which has kept the prices of goods down, Rosenfeld said.

That, in turn, has dampened the opportunity for underground — and often illegal — markets to develop. In fact, these days, technology has given people access to even more legal markets — think Craigslist, Etsy and eBay.

Technology has helped in other ways. The auto industry over the past several years equipped vehicles with sophisticated security systems. Cellphones have become mini GPS tracking devices.

"The world we live in is much different than decades ago," said Eric Baumer, a criminologist at Florida State University. "Life has changed a lot."

Other theories about the prolonged crime decrease address popular notions about why people commit crimes in the first place.

People tend to connect economic disadvantage to crime, Baumer said.

"But the truth is, the economic downturn can have these countervailing effects," he said.

For example, he said, when people are out of work, they tend to spend more time at home. That may decrease the opportunity for the average thief who wants to break in.

Experts also said age may have a lot to do with it.

"As the population ages, the fraction of the population that commits crime at a high rate is smaller," Rosenfeld said.

• • •

Still, it's not hard to see why people may have a perception of high crime.

"You can show people stats all day long," said Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway, "but the next day they may see someone out there selling drugs. …From their perception, they still see crime, so for them it can't be down."

Zoom out, though, and the picture looks quite different.

Thus far, crime in the state is down 2 percent from last year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which recently released data from the first half of this year.

In Tampa Bay, it fell even more. There was a drop of more than 10 percent in Pinellas, nearly 15 percent in Hillsborough and 6 percent in Pasco County. Hernando was the only local county to see an increase — about 13 percent.

Law enforcement officials make it clear they're happy with numbers like these. But even they admit they're not sure exactly what's behind them.

"I think it's got to be a combination of factors," said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon. "I just don't think that anybody knows what they all are."

Holloway said one reason may be that police have become more attuned to patterns and cycles in crime.

For example, many departments beefed up patrols around malls and shopping centers this weekend since burglaries typically rise around Thanksgiving. The Florida Highway Patrol put more troopers on the roads.

Police also have many more tools at their disposal. Departments these days routinely report that Internet and social media sites are helping them solve crimes. And many use data to track and even predict crime.

In St. Petersburg, officers a few years ago started monitoring the movements of the city's most notorious juvenile and adult criminals. It has led to a decrease in auto thefts, officials said.

"I think we're getting smarter," Holloway said.

• • •

Harmon and other law enforcement officials said they don't like to live their lives by stats, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in deciphering them.

Holloway said that over the next few months, he's sending his officers into the community to meet with residents about crime.

He wants to know what people are seeing every day on the streets. He also wants to know if they're choosing not to report incidents.

He, like researchers, hopes to answer this question: Is crime decreasing because of something police are doing, or would it have fallen on its own?

"I think that's the question we should be asking ourselves," he said. "I want to know why. We want to know why. … If there's something we're doing right, we need to know. If there's something we're doing wrong, we need to know."

Still, experts caution it could be years before they really understand this continued long-term crime decrease. They said that more data and scrutiny are needed.

"There's quite a complex array of things to sort through. It's not straightforward," Baumer said. "(But) these are real patterns. Crime is at levels we haven't seen in three or four decades."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

Florida crime keeps falling, and experts and law enforcement search for why 11/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 11:57pm]
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