TAMPA — When the economy goes down, crime goes up. People lose jobs, weigh their dire straits and sometimes decide crime pays better than the consequences.
At least that was the long-held assumption.
But it didn't ring true in 2009, the nation's second full year of recession. Crime decreased throughout the United States, including most of the Tampa Bay area. On Wednesday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that crime in Florida reached a 39-year low in 2009, declining by 6.4 percent compared with the year before.
Now enter dozens of new theories on crime and recession: People have fewer dollars and possessions, giving criminals less incentive to rob them. The rebuilding of inner cities over the last decade has made our cities safer. Incarceration rates have risen since the 1970s, so many criminals remain locked up.
But some law enforcement agencies cite another reason:
Just because dad got laid off doesn't mean he's going to steal bread.
"Now the new theory is that there are so many people out of work and at home who are keeping an eye on their neighborhood," Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said.
• • •
When the economy crashed, 80 percent of Americans felt that the conditions were at least "somewhat likely" to lead to increased crime, according to a Rasmussen Reports 2009 national poll.
The idea seemed logical enough. In the 1980s, an economic downturn paralleled a rise in gang violence. Then, the 1990s tech boom coincided with a drop in crime. Economics professors agreed that people might be more apt to commit crimes during down times.
But last year — even though the unemployment rate closed at 10 percent nationwide, 11.7 percent in Florida and 12.4 percent in Tampa Bay — crime fell.
The FBI reported a 4.4 percent nationwide decrease in violent crime and a 6.1 percent decrease in property crime for the first six months of 2009 compared with the first half of 2008. Crime also decreased in unincorporated Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, as well as in Tampa. St. Petersburg was one of the only agencies in Tampa Bay reporting an increase.
In another blow to the theory, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency released a report in February 2009 finding "very little conclusive research on the relationship between crime and the economy."
Still, not everyone agrees.
"It would be foolish to say that unemployment doesn't affect crime," said Alan Seals, an Oklahoma City University economics professor who has seen a spike in 16-year-olds joining gangs, which he equates to high unemployment rates.
And analysts say the crime rate could still go up if the recession turns into a long-term depression with even fewer jobs, exhausted unemployment benefits and increased foreclosures, alcoholism and drug addiction.
In that case, many variables would be involved.
"We like to throw out things that seem simple, like the economy, and I just don't think any of this is that easy," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said. "I wish it was."
On one thing analysts seem to agree: Unemployment has some effect on crime — but for positive reasons.
"Crime depends on opportunity: houses left unattended, cars parked with valuables inside, helpless pedestrians wandering around alone in the middle of the night, and so on," said Christopher Bruce, president of the International Association of Crime Analysis. "Recessions inherently reduce opportunity. Fewer people are shopping and dining and thus leaving their cars in parking lots. Fewer people are out at nightclubs and bars, making things more difficult for burglars."
It's not just in Tampa Bay where police believe that's true.
"With a lot more unemployed people, a lot more people are staying home, and they see more in their neighborhood," Sgt. Thomas Lasater of the St. Louis County, Mo., Police Department told the Associated Press.
Art Fernister, president and founder of the National Association of Citizens on Patrol, said his organization has seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in requests for information since the recession began.
Those trends play out locally. Pinellas County saw a surge of interest in neighborhood watches, although no long-term growth. Hillsborough added 67 new watch groups in the past year, sheriff's Cpl. James Escobio said. Tampa added 75 groups over the past two years, police crime watch coordinators said.
In a time of recession, crime watches are more popular than ever, said Chris Tutko, neighborhood watch director for the National Sheriffs' Association.
"When you have less," he said, "you want to keep it."
• • •
That's true for Nancy Benitez.
The 50-year-old lives in Tampa's Eagle Eyes II neighborhood, with blocks of seniors and immigrants just off W Hillsborough Avenue near a strip club and a motel.
A neighborhood crime watch magnet sticks to the white Mustang in her driveway. From the ceiling in her living room, a television flashes with security camera images from her yard.
On a recent day, Benitez and her husband, Fredy, sipped midmorning coffee while watching Fox News.
"Look, they're talking about unemployment right now," said Nancy, in her fast New York accent.
"It's at 8.8 percent," Fredy said.
"In New York," Nancy pointed out.
They knew it was worse here: 13.1 percent in February.
Fredy, 57, is on disability because of nerve damage in his arm. The Doubletree hotel on Rocky Point Drive laid off Nancy from her payroll job in October. She applies for jobs, but no one has hired her.
"I'd rather be working," she said. "Believe me."
She has put the extra time into the neighborhood watch she started in October 2008.
She called Tampa police crime watch coordinator Mary Anne Hunsberger. "I'm bored, and I need to keep my mind busy," Benitez told her.
Soon, she was passing out fliers for a new "business watch."
When she first moved to Tampa from New Jersey in 1994, Benitez found people here kept their blinds and mouths shut.
Somehow, she rallied 52 members for the crime watch and persuaded a car dealer nearby to let her use its meeting room. Block captains began reporting to her. Neighbors told tales of late-night traffic and fake salespeople casing homes.
Police awarded her neighborhood watch coordinator of 2009 in District One.
Still, no one has called with a job offer, so her eyes constantly scan her security camera feeds rather than an office computer screen.
At the moment, fighting crime is her job.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.