Serious crime in unincorporated Hillsborough County dropped 15 percent during the first 11 months of 2010 and is down nearly 25 percent over two years.
The reason is clear, Hillsborough County sheriff's officials say. Much of the reduction comes from the expansion of an effort to target the small percentage of offenders — less than 10 percent — who commit most of the crimes.
"You take them out of the equation, and your crime is going to drop, and it has," said sheriff's Col. Albert Frost, who heads investigative services for the agency.
The Sheriff's Office started focusing on what's known as intelligence-led policing about three years ago, when Frost commanded the agency's district covering western Hillsborough County. Successes there led to the creation of the agency's Law Enforcement Intelligence Nexus Center, or LINC.
In an office park off Falkenburg Road, detectives, crime analysts, gang experts and other specialists analyze the huge volume of reports generated by the Sheriff's Office, plus files on known offenders and their habits, tips from the public and county employees, pawnshop tickets, criminals' postings to social networks like MySpace, intelligence from informers and information from jail inmates.
The goal is to spot patterns early and give deputies fresh information to guide their strategies — watch for break-ins on this street, look out for this guy suspected of holding up convenience stores.
"What's always been the weakness in law enforcement is we get a lot of intelligence, but the hard part is how do you put it all together?" Sheriff David Gee said. "How do you efficiently use that information? That's what we've been trying to do."
Initially, LINC shared its intelligence with colleagues in the agency's district offices through a daily morning conference call. That led to the arrests of thieves who targeted copper tubing and wiring and appliances from foreclosed or abandoned homes, as well as one man who tried to entice underage girls into his pickup truck, another behind a home invasion and a group that stole more than $100,000 through the use of cloned cell phones.
Along with those successes, Hillsborough officials acknowledge that crime generally has been dropping for decades at the local, state and national levels. Serious crime — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft — dropped 4.7 percent in 2009, according to the FBI.
But in unincorporated Hillsborough, serious crime went down more than 10 percent the same year, plus another 15 percent through November of this year. Sheriff's officials attribute much of that additional decline to intelligence-led policing. It's certainly not that there are more deputies on the street, they say, because there aren't.
To the contrary, the recession has led the Sheriff's Office to leave as many as 200 authorized positions unfilled. That leaves less than 1.6 deputies per 1,000 county residents — a level that's lower than the national average for large sheriff's offices and is about half the ratio inside the city of Tampa.
Encouraged by the short-term gains, sheriff's officials have expanded intelligence-led policing efforts. In addition to eight detectives who coordinate intelligence data in the LINC operation, they created two new intelligence squads devoted to the east and west sides of the county this year.
The Sheriff's Office isn't the only agency focusing on repeat offenders and emerging crime trends.
In Tampa, police have had their own success, reducing city crime 56 percent in seven years largely by focusing on four key crimes: burglary, robbery, auto burglary and auto theft. The thieves who commit those four crimes also commit more violent crimes, police say, so catching them creates a "powerful ripple effect" on the overall crime rate.
In January, Tampa police created dozens of "rapid offender control" squads that team up undercover officers and narcotics investigators.
With both agencies zeroing in on the same kinds of offenders, if not the same people, sheriff's officials and police increasingly share information. This spring, the sheriff's LINC conference call was expanded to include investigators from the Tampa Police Department. In the months since then, police from Temple Terrace and the University of South Florida have come on the line, too.
If this new degree of scrutiny makes the worst offenders more cautious, that's okay, officials say.
"I don't mind if they know we're after them," sheriff's Cpl. Frank Cruze said. "If their job is to be a criminal, and they know we're after them, they're either going to have to quit their job or we're going to catch them or they're going to move. Any of those three is fine with us because it's going to reduce crime."
Richard Danielson can be reached at d[email protected] or (813) 226-3403.