Crime factors into where we buy homes and enroll our schoolchildren. It affects our property values and our sense of well-being.
Throughout Hillsborough County, as in many parts of the nation, crime is down. But it still plagues every neighborhood to some degree. The biggest variable is the type of crime.
To get a picture of the differences, the St. Petersburg Times fused neighborhood boundaries with 2009 crime statistics from Tampa police and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. The snapshot that emerges contains several surprises:
• There were more DUI arrests in the suburbs of Brandon, New Tampa and Town 'N Country than in bar-heavy areas like Ybor City and SoHo. The major reason: Suburban roads get more traffic enforcement.
• Shopping malls in Brandon, Citrus Park and near the University of South Florida saw more thefts than WestShore or International Plaza. And all the malls were harder hit than stores downtown, at Harbour Island or at Channelside. In smaller boutiques, police say, clerks can keep a closer eye on their merchandise.
• Despite reductions in crime countywide, Palm River/Clair Mel and Progress Village suffered upticks. Residents there blame the many foreclosures in their neighborhoods, which they say provide tempting targets for burglars and erode a sense of community.
The geography of crime elsewhere was more predictable.
Crime dropped in East Tampa, the University Area and Town 'N Country last year. But all three areas still struggle with drug offenses and violent offenses.
Sulphur Springs had the most murders in Tampa with four, while the University Area had the most of any area in the unincorporated county, with six.
"The University Area is a tough area, but we have to keep in mind that 99 percent of the people who live in there are law-abiding," Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said. "They're trying to make a living, and they don't want somebody to break into their house while they're trying to work."
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Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman ran the city in the late 1980s when the murder rate was four times as high. Since then, she said, the city has grown and redeveloped.
But some things remain the same.
The suburbs, stocked with single-family homes, deal with traffic and vandalism while areas filled with denser rental complexes and subsidized housing, such as the University Area and East Tampa, struggle with drugs and robberies, Freedman said.
"More people out of work, people standing on the corners, it's a whole cycle and it's why crime occurs," she said.
And prostitution remains prevalent on Nebraska Avenue in Old Seminole Heights, which had 165 arrests — more than in any single area of the city or county. This, despite a vigilant neighborhood watch group that patrols the community on foot, shining flashlights on suspected offender.
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor cautions against jumping to conclusions.
"I think that can be a little misleading," she said. "The number of arrests means that we're out there enforcing it on a regular basis so the public doesn't have to see it."
At the other extreme, affluent Tampa neighborhoods including Hyde Park Preservation, Culbreath Isles and New Suburb Beautiful have far fewer issues with crime.
Those neighborhoods hire off-duty officers to patrol their streets at night. Homeowners with big investments in the community constantly watch out for each other.
"If anything looks out of the ordinary, we're not shy at all," said Hyde Park Preservation neighborhood watch coordinator Lincoln Tamayo. "We're an urban neighborhood. We're not in the Land of Oz."
Crime also is low in gated communities in New Tampa, in Cheval and FishHawk Ranch.
In the suburbs and some deep-pocket areas of Tampa, nothing outrages homeowners like vandalism, especially spray-painted graffiti.
"They have a lot of long nice white fences that people like to paint at night," Gee said.
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With a larger population of kids and more high schools, unincorporated Hillsborough has more gang members than Tampa, including Latino gangs in areas including Dover, Wimauma and Ruskin, as well as Town 'N Country.
The fact that crime varies from place to place is not lost on police or sheriff's officials. Both have moved to a more proactive approach that watches for patterns of crime, targets the worst suspects and holds officers, deputies and detectives accountable for the crime that happens in their zones.
It's a big change, officials say, but already it has led to significant decreases in serious crime. Tampa is down 12.7 percent. Hillsborough is down 10.3 percent.
"We're getting things resolved a lot quicker in terms of these offenders that will be multi-crime offenders," sheriff's Maj. J.R. Burton said. "Serial robber, serial burglar — we're catching them now when they've done four and five cases. In the past they could do up to 50 before we may figure out who they are."
Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403 or Danielson@sptimes.com. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.