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Florida reports drop in crime but doubling of murders in Pinellas

TALLAHASSEE — Crime may be down statewide, but murders are up in Pinellas County.

In the first half of this year, authorities investigated 30 reported murders in Pinellas, compared with 15 for the same period last year, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Statistics released Friday showed a drop in crime — 2 percent across the board. The only category to see a statewide increase was forcible sex crimes, which rose 1.1 percent.

In total crime, Tampa Bay-area counties saw even bigger drops than the statewide average: 14.9 percent in Hillsborough, 6.4 percent in Pasco and 10.4 percent in Pinellas.

The only county to see an increase was Hernando, with a 13.2 percent rise in the seven crime categories for which the FDLE collects data. The number is misleadingly large, though, because there were much fewer reports in the less densely populated county.

Hernando's increases were mainly seen in burglaries (78 more this year) and larcenies (271 more). Though Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis said he wasn't happy with those figures, they didn't shock him.

He partly blamed prescription pill abuse for the spike in theft-related crimes. Many formerly law-abiding citizens have turned to crime to support their addictions, Nienhuis said.

"Almost without exception," he said, "if the person confesses, part of their confession is that they're hooked on drugs."

But Pinellas' increase in murders stands out.

The most notable spikes within the county were in St. Petersburg, where murders climbed from six in the first half of 2010 to 13 in the first half of this year, and in Tarpon Springs, where they went from one to seven.

For Tarpon Springs, a city that has averaged one murder per year during the last decade, that's more than the last five years combined.

All seven have been closed with arrests. Five were considered domestic incidents in which two different young men took the lives of family members. The other two cases involved assailants who were known to their victims, according to police.

Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen called the spate "an anomaly."

"You have four people out of a city of 23,500 that are responsible for a 600 percent increase in our homicide rate this year," he said. "This can happen anywhere in the community, anywhere in the United States."

St. Petersburg's increase comes after several years with especially low numbers of murders. The 11 total murders in 2009 was the lowest number in the city in 40 years. The next lowest was 2010, with 13 homicides total.

But that number shot back up in 2011. There were 13 homicides in the first six months of this year alone. The number is now 19, the latest killing taking place Monday.

It was a rise anticipated by St. Petersburg Maj. Mike Kovacsev, whose division investigates violent crimes. Historically the city averages 22 to 24 murders a year, he said. But murder is the toughest crime to prevent, Kovacsev said, because it's usually a crime of passion and opportunity.

"The last two years were just so low," he said, "and you do everything you can as a police department to keep it low."

What has been even more difficult for St. Petersburg is that some of the people killed this year died while serving the public. The city suffered its first police casualties in 30 years in early 2011 when Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer David Crawford were shot and killed in the line of duty. Then in May, private security officer Mathew Little was also fatally shot while on patrol.

"It's something we haven't had to deal with here for over three decades," said police spokesman Mike Puetz. "From an emotional (standpoint), it makes the statistic for us more personal."

Times staff writers Jamal Thalji, Katie Sanders, Rita Farlow and John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Florida reports drop in crime but doubling of murders in Pinellas 10/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 9:55pm]
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