Murder, violent crime spike in Florida, but numbers mixed in Tampa Bay

Murders are down in Pinellas, way up in Hillsborough. Sheriff Chronister says the reason may be big population increases.
Florida's crime numbers track with observations among criminal justice experts about the impact of the pandemic on local communities.
Florida's crime numbers track with observations among criminal justice experts about the impact of the pandemic on local communities. [ Shutterstock ]
Published June 25, 2021|Updated June 25, 2021

Crime in Florida has steadily declined for the past 50 years, according to figures released by the state this week — but not violent acts like aggravated assault and murder.

The state’s crime rate in 2020 dropped 14.1 percent below 2019′s numbers, according to the self-reported crime data collected each year by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement each year. The decrease is 15.7 percent when population growth is factored in.

But the decline is largely buoyed by a 17 percent drop for offenses labeled “property crimes,” such as burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft. When it comes to offenses carried out against humans, the state reported an additional 1,850 “violent crimes” in 2020 — a 2.3 percent increase over 2019.

The state also saw large spikes in some domestic violence crimes, most notably a 116 percent increase in stalking offenses year over year.

It’s the first time Florida has seen a year-over-year increase in “violent crimes” since 2015, the report said. The Florida numbers track with observations among criminal justice experts about the impact of the pandemic on local communities.

Across Tampa Bay, some of these communities bucked the statewide trends in 2020.

Hillsborough County’s 12 law enforcement agencies reported a combined 12.3 percent drop in overall crime but had the highest incidence of violent crimes in the region by far. The number of murders in Hillsborough increased from 66 in 2019 to 81 in 2020, and the number of aggravated assault cases grew by 621 to 3,201.

Related: Tampa sees alarming surge in violent crime; leaders discuss guns, gangs, solutions

Compare that to Pinellas County, where the number of murders dropped in 2020, from 40 in 2019 to 27 in 2020. The number of aggravated assault cases in Pinellas increased by 361 to 2,620.

Overall, the 30 law enforcement agencies in Pinellas saw a combined crime rate decline of 15.7 percent – the biggest drop in the seven-county region. Polk County’s crime rate dropped 12.1 percent, followed by a 10.4 percent decrease in Hernando, a 9.9 percent decrease in Pasco and a 4.3 percent decrease in Manatee.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said it’s important to also factor in the county’s explosive growth.

According to the state report, Hillsborough County’s population has grown by 33,889 in the past year to 1,478,759. Pinellas County’s population is listed at 984,054 — an increase of only 6,009 since 2019.

“So we finally have some good news coming out of 2020,” Chronister said. “In the last 14 years, this is the 13th time crime has been reduced. And that’s because we are working every day to prevent crime through community outreach and by educating the public on how to avoid becoming a crime victim and where to turn for help.”

On its own, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reported a crime rate that’s 19.1 percent lower than it was in 2019, records show. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office saw its crime rate drop by 16.4 percent.

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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri credits community conversations with steering his county clear of the spike in violence during a year that saw the pandemic and a national reckoning over race in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

“To do our job in the community, we have to have the public’s trust and we’ve had lots of candid conversations in the community,” Gualtieri said. “It may sound naïve, but I still believe in the power of good, effective communication.”

According to the state’s report, there were 1,285 murders in Florida in 2020. That’s 165 more murders than in 2019 and 178 more than the year before, records show. The 14.7 percent increase in murders is the highest seen in Florida since 1991, when the state reported 1,276 murders in a single year.

Guns were used in 1,025 of those murders, up 20.2 percent from the year before.

Nationwide, a record was set in 2020 for the number of gun-related background checks, according to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. So far in 2021, four out of five months have topped last year’s numbers.

The state data release comes as President Joe Biden unveiled his plan this week to curb a surge in violent crimes nationwide. A preliminary FBI report shows that the national murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020.

On Wednesday, Biden announced a series of actions including a “zero tolerance” policy for firearms dealers who violate rules enforced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Instead of issuing warnings, the plan would revoke gun dealers’ licenses immediately for offenses like failing to run a background check, falsifying records or selling to a person prohibited from owning firearms.

Biden’s plan also calls for more investment in community violence intervention programs, efforts to grow employment opportunities for teens and young adults, and help for former prisoners looking to reenter the community.

Biden’s plan links much of the rise in violent crime with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders blame demands to shift or reduce police funding after Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests.

A new 30-second ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released ahead of Biden’s announcement, stars Florida Sen. Rick Scott declaring that Democrats have “embraced the idea of defunding the police, which is the dumbest idea ever.”