TAMPA — Crime and criminal justice reform have become a centerpiece issue in some of this year’s local political campaigns. And depending on which candidates you hear, you might think the Tampa Bay area is an oasis of peace or that it is overrun with violent criminals.
Nowhere is this contrast more apparent than in the race for Hillsborough State Attorney. The incumbent, Andrew Warren, who for the past four years has championed his brand of progressive justice, says his policies have resulted in a dramatic drop in crime.
“Crime is down 22%,” he said recently. “Reform is up. We need more of what we’ve been doing.”
Warren’s opponent, Mike Perotti, a lawyer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, has seized on recent reports of violence in Tampa’s inner city to claim that Warren’s policies not only haven’t worked, but have made things worse.
“Who knows this stuff? The men and women in the east Tampa community,” Perotti said. “They know his policies have not helped them.”
So what’s the deal? Is crime down? Or is it rising?
The answer is a little of both.
Let’s start with the 22% figure. The Tampa Bay Times asked Warren’s office from where that number came. They said it’s the percentage change in Hillsborough County’s overall crime rate when comparing the years 2016 and 2019.
The “crime rate” refers to the number of crimes per 100,000 people. It’s calculated based on numbers included in the Uniform Crime Report, the official annual crime statistics that local law enforcement agencies submit to the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In 2016, the crime rate in Hillsborough was 2,081 per 100,000, according to the statistics. In 2019, it was 1,633 per 100,000. The difference is 21.5%, or 22% when rounded.
But while Hillsborough County’s crime rate from four years ago has decreased, the same statistics reflect that some crime categories have gone up.
Rape, in particular, has increased. Hillsborough County law enforcement agencies reported 280 rape offenses in 2016, and 392 rape offenses in 2019.
At the same time, other crime categories saw dramatic decreases. Robberies fell from 903 in 2016 to 609 in 2019. There were 17,552 larceny cases in 2016, and 15,575 larcenies in 2019.
What accounts for these differences? It’s hard to say.
Whatever the reason, Perotti asserts things are getting worse. As evidence, he points to a spike in violence this year in Tampa’s inner city.
Between January and September, the Tampa Police Department reported 111 incidents of aggravated battery with a firearm within the city limits. In the same period in 2019, the number of aggravated batteries with a firearm was 64.
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City homicides also have increased this year. Between January and September, Tampa police reported 31 homicides in the city, compared with 21 during the same period last year.
But this isn’t unique to Tampa or Hillsborough County.
Crime in America has consistently declined for much of the past three decades. In 2020, many major American cities have reported increases in homicide.
Jeff Asher, a crime analyst based in New Orleans, last month released data from 59 American cities, which showed a 28% increase in murder so far this year. A preliminary FBI report also found a 14.8% increase in murders nationwide in the first half of 2020.
“It’s hard to say with any confidence that any one actor or one local action is responsible for a change in crime," Asher said, “especially this year and especially when it’s big picture stuff.”
Experts have suggested the recent surge has something to do with the COVID-19 pandemic and the national economy. Another factor could be distrust of police resulting from the high-profile, police-related killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan did not respond to a request for comment for this story. But in a news conference in March, he noted that local shootings had ticked upward that month even as police calls for service dwindled. At another news conference in May, local elected officials suggested neighborhood gang feuds could be partly to blame for the rise.
“It’s incredibly difficult to explain changes in crime trends, and they certainly fluctuate for many reasons beyond the control of the criminal justice system,” said Justin Nix, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
While the overall decline in crime is probably for real, Nix said, officials tend to focus solely on the most serious offenses. He also noted that the phenomenon of rising and falling crime is complicated and not always attributable to any one factor.
“Crime isn’t purely a function of whatever (criminal justice) officials are doing,” Nix said. “It’s way more complex.”