BROOKSVILLE — In the midst of soaring unemployment and a crippling recession, Hernando County recorded its lowest violent crime rate of the decade in 2009.
The number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and larceny — committed in Hernando dipped more than 15 percent, a sharp decline that came as a surprise to the Sheriff's Office.
"That's the way we like to see it go," Sheriff Richard Nugent said last week. "I'm pleased with where we are today in regards to crime. I'll take that."
Hernando finished with its lowest violent crime rate since 2000, a year before Nugent took over as sheriff and when the county had nearly 28,000 fewer residents.
Overall, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, there were nearly 1,000 fewer crimes committed in this county of nearly 165,000 residents.
Substantial declines in the number of forced sex offenses (15.1 percent), burglaries (17.1 percent) and larcenies (13.4 percent) contributed to the decrease, compared to 2008, according to FDLE.
In particular, 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 (25.4 percent), which is one of the most common crimes on the FDLE index.
"We're doing so much with regards to public education," Nugent said. "You can see the drop. Those types of things are effective."
Nugent also noted the 27 percent decline in violent juvenile crime, a dip that he believes could bode well for the future.
To the surprise of some observers, the drop in violent crime came as Hernando County suffers through a nationwide recession. Unemployment here has topped 14 percent, one of the highest rates in Florida.
But to Tom Mieczkowski, the chairman of the criminology department at the University of South Florida, the correlation between unemployment and high crime is anything but clear.
"There is a general sense that if you look in a big picture, crime rate doesn't track at all with unemployment," Mieczkowski said. "If you were to look at the Great Depression, you would see that crime rates actually went down."
Mieczkowski emphasized that without comprehensive data, there might not be a solid explanation for the crime decline in Hernando. He said it was more important to find the average crime rate rather than looking at a one-year sample size.
According to the FDLE, Hernando recorded its lowest violent crime rate of the decade in 2009 after going through its highest the previous year.
Also, news of the drop came only weeks after Hernando County suffered through a January that was the bloodiest month in memory. In two weeks in January, Hernando had more homicides here than in all of 2009.
In fact, there were more murders in Hernando in January than during five of the years of the past decade.
The early surge in violent deaths has led to some concerns within the Sheriff's Office. "We all hope it's not a new trend," said sheriff's Chief Deputy Michael Maurer. "This has already been a very challenging year for us."
Looking forward, Nugent pointed to nearly $1 million in budget cuts made in the past year, which forced the Sheriff's Office to end its antidrug DARE program, close five community substations and eliminate several other programs and positions.
Nugent and other officials at the Sheriff's Office anticipate having to eliminate more positions during the next budget process, which will likely mean layoffs of deputies.
"The next cuts will be people, the frontline folks on the street. It has to be," Nugent said. "We've cut those programs and we've eliminated all the open positions.
"Sometimes, you just can't quantify the trickle effect. But I think the effect of (the budget cuts) will be felt in years on down the line."
County Commissioner Jeff Stabins, who repeatedly clashed last fall with Nugent over his agency's spending plan, said he was pleased the Sheriff's Office was able to manage under the strain of a smaller budget.
"My goal is for them to do the same again this year," Stabins said.
Joel Anderson can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6120.