BROOKSVILLE — The number of violent crimes committed in Hernando County is down nearly 17 percent over the first half of the year, a decline that came in the midst of soaring unemployment and a crippling economic downturn.
Substantial drops in the number of aggravated assaults (17 percent), burglaries (21 percent) and larcenies (13 percent) contributed to the decrease, compared to the first six months of 2008, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The numbers did not come as much of a surprise to the Sheriff's Office, which tracks the unofficial numbers throughout the year. Sheriff Richard Nugent cautioned that residents should wait until the end of the year before drawing any conclusions.
"I try not to get too excited for the first six months of the year," Nugent said. "I prefer to look at the year-end totals. These trends tend to even out over the course of the year."
The crime statistics for Hernando cover only the unincorporated areas of the county and Weeki Wachee. But the trend also appeared to take hold in Brooksville, the county seat, which reports a decline of 32.4 percent in violent crime.
"You would like to continue to see it decline," said Brooksville police Chief George Turner, who noted the city's numbers had not been officially released by the FDLE. "We've certainly increased our enforcement efforts. But it is only a snapshot."
The FDLE's numbers were made public shortly after Nugent's presentation July 28 to Hernando County commissioners, who have asked him to cut $2 million out of his budget for the coming year. Nugent told commissioners at the budget hearing that the annual crime rate in the county had increased 12 percent in 2008, and warned that more cuts would make his agency's job even more difficult.
Nugent defended that ominous warning in an interview recently, saying crime rates tend to increase over the second half of the year. So while the violent crime rate was down for the first six months of 2009, he said, authorities are prepared for an uptick over the final six months.
"I'm hopeful that crime will remain down over the year," Nugent said. "But we're not expecting it to because of things in the economy."
In 2008, echoing Nugent's concerns, violent crime did increase over the second half of the year. Hernando had a total of 3,216 crimes recorded for the first six months, but 3,643 over the final half of the year.
This year, Hernando recorded 2,673 violent crimes from January through June.
Nugent said authorities have been unable to determine the reasons for the annual second-half surge of crime.
As for this year's first-half drop, Nugent pointed to the department's much-publicized "Lock It or Lose It" campaign — which reminded residents to keep their car doors locked and windows rolled up — as a possible reason for the decrease in motor vehicle larcenies (24 percent), which is one of the most common crimes on the FDLE index.
"That was one of the easier things we could do to knock down those numbers," Nugent said. "It's just a crime of opportunity. Things like that, we target."
The only major crime categories to see meaningful increases in Hernando were shoplifting (22 percent) and larceny from buildings (46 percent). Overall, $2.9 million in property was stolen throughout the county.
"Tell the people who had their valuables stolen that crime is down," Nugent said. "They don't care. They're still victims of crime."
In Brooksville, Turner noted that drug arrests had more than doubled — from 80 in 2008 to 162 this year. He attributed the rise to renewed efforts to put drug offenders behind bars.
"We put a lot of man-hours on those investigations," the chief said. "We expected those numbers to go up. When you're proactive, it affects the other crime rates."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6120.