St. Pete police chief blames economy for spike in crime

ST. PETERSBURG — Crime is on the rise, and the city's top cop has a suspect: the faltering economy.

Reported crime jumped by 7 percent during the first four months of 2009 compared with the same period last year, according to St. Petersburg police crime statistics.

The spike largely is fueled by an increase in property crimes, which rose 8 percent from January to April. Violent crime is up 3 percent citywide.

The picture in Midtown is more severe: 16 percent more property crimes and 39 percent more auto thefts.

"This is only four months of data, it's early," said police Chief Chuck Harmon. "But these are trends you don't want to see continue."

For many, the numbers confirm what they've long suspected: The city is becoming more dangerous.

"In some of the e-mails and stuff I've read people are seeing more break-ins and more garages broken into," said City Council Chairman Jeff Danner. "I hear from the crime watch groups, and they have concerns."

Harmon fears the trend will continue because of the sputtering economy.

"I think the economy is the driving force," he said. "There's more potential targets because of vacant businesses and homes. … Your jobless rate is pretty high. You're getting people forced to make decisions they would not ordinarily make if they were employed and off the street.

Foreclosures are a big part of the problem, the chief said, especially in Midtown.

Harmon said 60 percent of burglaries took place at "unlocked and unsecured" homes where thieves stripped them of valuables like appliances and copper pipes.

Broken down, the rise in property crime is due to a 9 percent rise in larceny, a 7 percent increase in burglaries and a 5 percent rise in auto thefts. But not all crime is up.

There were five homicides in those months, compared to 11 last year. Forcible sex crimes are down 19 percent, and robbery is down 10 percent.

Another positive, the chief said, is that arrests are up 13 percent.

But in St. Petersburg, crime statistics are never just about numbers.

Earlier this year a spate of violent crimes — a series of violent convenience store robberies and the gang-related shooting that killed an 8-year-old girl — set the city on edge.

They also re-ignited an old debate: Is the city safe just because statistics show crime is down?

"I've always said those are just numbers," said council member Wengay Newton. "People are calling in saying they have problems."

Harmon angered many when he tried to use 2008's falling crime statistics to reassure the public that his agency had crime under control.

But now, the statistics seem to match the public's perception.

"The numbers are consistent with the kinds of stories people are telling me," said council member Karl Nurse.

Crime is on everyone's mind these days, said Lisa Wheeler-Brown, a Bartlett Park resident whose son was killed last year.

"When I go to bed at night I lock my screen door and I tell my son to make sure to lock the bottom deadbolt," she said, "because people are just kicking in the doors to houses."

"I already lost one son. I don't want to lose another son or my grandkids."

Nurse said he thinks the city has the resources it needs to handle the uptick in crime, but that the manpower could be better utilized.

"To me the story is you take the spikes (in crime) and you shift resources to fix that problem," Nurse said, "and then six months later there may be a different spike."

Harmon said his department already does that. More detectives are handling property crimes. Two crime prevention officers were added.

And he also continued to use statistics to try to make his point.

In his May 27 letter to the council explaining the monthly crime totals, he tried to end on a bright note.

Crime is up 7.2 percent, he wrote, but if you look at the five-year average it's really down 1.2 percent. That made at least one council member scratch his head.

"Normally," said Newton, "people use averages to lessen the impact of what's happening."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Pete police chief blames economy for spike in crime 06/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 11:31am]

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