Two recent high-profile burglaries in Columbia County spotlight the rising numbers of those crimes.
On Feb. 29, a Martinez 15-year-old shot and killed a burglar who, along with another man, forced his way into the Martinez apartment the boy shares with his parents.
Earlier that week, a Harlem man held someone trying to break into his neighbor’s home at gunpoint until authorities arrived.
The number of burglaries in Columbia County rose 31.8 percent, from 346 in 2010 to 456 in 2011, according to recently released crime statistics.
“The increase in our burglary rate is directly attributed to crime occurring at construction sites,” Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said.
A man was recently arrested after neighbors saw him inside a home under construction in Martinez. Travis Newsome, owner of Newsome Homes and Construction, said the burglar cut off the copper plumbing before he was caught.
“Often times, copper is the intended target. It’s economics,” Morris said. “High prices of copper make it a desirable target for burglaries.”
Grovetown Department of Public Safety Capt. Gary Owens said construction-site crime, mostly thefts, was an issue his agency tackled a few years ago. The growing problem was nipped with a “heavy police presence” and neighborhood watch programs. He said an ordinance passed by city officials last year limits construction work hours, allowing intruders to be easily identified.
Harlem Department of Public Safety Chief Jim March said the majority of the city’s six burglaries and 83 burglary attempts/alarms in 2011 were unoccupied homes, buildings and construction sites. That’s 31.7 percent more attempts/alarms than 2010 and one fewer burglary.
“We haven’t had a lot,” March said of burglaries. “Anytime you have construction going on, people are going to mess with their equipment and things like that.”
The department itself hasn’t been immune. Since construction started on the city’s new public safety building, March said, thieves have pilfered from that site.
Morris said the home-invasion-type burglaries are not common among the larger number of burglaries. That number includes burglaries of homes, commercial buildings, homes under construction and other unoccupied homes and buildings.
“Most of those are nonviolent,” he said.
The amount of reported burglaries is going down so far in 2012.
In January, 26 burglaries were reported compared to the 36 in January 2010. Burglaries in February dropped 40 percent, from 37 in 2010 to 22 this year.
Overall, the crime rate in Columbia County rose by 0.9 percent. The number of crimes reported to the sheriff’s office increased from 5,194 in 2010 to 5,240 in 2011.
In the past decade, the county’s crime rate rose just 0.92 percent even as the population increased 30.64 percent during that period.
Morris said the last decade shows the number of reported crimes “plateauing” as opposed to rising proportionately to the population increases.
The Part I crimes – major crimes including murder, rape, burglary, robbery, assault and auto theft – actually rose 6.9 percent, in large part to the increase number of burglaries.
In Grovetown, those Part I crimes dropped 13.2 percent with significant decreases in burglaries and larcenies.
“Generally, everything is good,” Owens said. “With our growth, we keep our stats about the same, mainly due to Director (Al) Robinson’s strong commitment to community policing.”
Reports of thefts, burglaries and other property crimes declined, he said, “due to things like neighborhood watches, officers in the neighborhoods.”
The number of burglaries in Grovetown is headed for an even lower number this year with just five in January and February.
Owens said he hopes computers installed in most of the public safety patrol cars will help the officers be seen more in neighborhoods, even while they complete mundane paperwork.
“They can do reports and everything from the car,” Owens said.
The city’s overall crime numbers are difficult to decipher because of a change of reporting in July. Previously, the crime statistics only included calls officers made reports on, averaging 1,334 reports January through July 2011.
Beginning in July, all calls for service were added in, including escorts, giving rides, helping with disabled vehicles, bicycle theft and getting fuel. From July through December 2011, the report numbers averaged 5,813.
Owens said the larger numbers shouldn’t be alarming. “It’s been fairly consistent,” Owens said.
Like Grovetown, the crime rate in Harlem has remained steady. The total number of calls – including reported crimes, traffic stops, escorts and all other calls – rose 11.3 percent, from 2,513 to 2,796.
One of the larger increases were the number of drug arrests. There were 39 in 2011, a 69.5 percent rise over the 23 in 2010. March attributes that rise to more enforcement, not necessarily more drug crimes.
“Over the last year, we (designated) three people to work on drug enforcement,” March said. “They concentrated on doing some narcotics operations, some buys. ... They are really focused on that.”
In many ways, 2012 is a fresh start for the Harlem Department of Public Safety. The new director, David Sward, took over in January. Construction on the new Public Safety building is expected to conclude next month. March said he hopes to get more residents involved.
“Really, the thing that we’re looking at right now is to start soliciting some interest in the neighborhood watch program,” March said.