For the eighth year in a row, reported criminal activity in Columbia County fell.
Though the population grew by another 3,000 people in 2003 to an estimated 98,000 county residents, crime activity dropped by 69 incidents to 5,123, according to statistics from the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
Since 1996, the county's population has jumped 17.5 percent, while crime rates have dropped nearly 26 percent.
Sheriff Clay Whittle attributes the annual decreases to community programs such as neighborhood watches, concentrated patrols, youth education programs and communicator programs designed to inform residents and business people of particular trends.
"Community involvement is everything," he said. "The partnership that we've made with the community, including businesses, has been a great success. It's not all just the sheriff's office. We can't do it without the community's involvement."
Authorities say they believe an economic tailspin contributed to escalations in burglaries, which rose 52.3 percent in 2002 over the year before. Community programs and crime analysis curtailed that trend and burglaries dropped 26.5 percent to 291 reported incidents in 2003.
At the sheriff's urging, county commissioners gave the sheriff's office enough funds to hire a crime analyst. Using computer software specifically designed for crime analysis, an analyst enters criminal incidents, focusing on crime, location and time, to look for any trends. The findings are then distributed to deputies and detectives daily.
"They use that to key in on certain locations at certain times, and it's been very successful in catching numerous groups of thieves and burglars," Whittle said.
There also were slight reductions in reports of theft, robbery, sodomy and child molestation.
Juvenile offenses spiked in 2003 with a 154 more reported cases for a total of 837 on the year.
Sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said the increase is partly linked to an increasing teen population in the county and an aggressive juvenile crime-abatement unit.
The special unit is identifying more crimes that are being committed by juveniles, then taking measure to arrest them.
"You must identify a juvenile was involved to have a juvenile offense," Morris said. "If you have a criminal trespass case, it can't be categorized as a juvenile offense unless a charge is made on a juvenile. Much of these numbers are as the results of arrests, not pending cases."
Crimes of physical violence also rose. There were 36 incidents of aggravated assault in Columbia County last year, a 20 percent increase. Battery incidents totaled 190 in 2003, 86 more than the year before.
The majority of these assaults came from people who knew each other and many of them were domestic violence incidents, Morris said.
"We can put an officer on every beat, but we can't put an officer in every home," he said. "Most of those are unpreventable. Unfortunately, we're reactive to that versus proactive. What we can do is go in reactively and remediate and refer in the hopes of preventing future violence."
After a minor increase in 2002, part-one crimes - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and arson - dropped by 8.9 percent last year. No homicides were reported in 2002, but two murders occurred in Columbia County in 2003.
The homicide of Army Capt. Kenneth Anderson, 40, of Evans, was ruled a murder-suicide committed by his 34-year-old wife, Linda Bualat Anderson, and authorities closed the case.
Police still are investigating the shooting death of Meredith Ruth Guy, who was killed in her Twin Lakes Drive home in Martinez last February.
"There are no new developments to report in that case," Morris said.
Increased visibility and specialized training led to increased arrests in nearly every statistical category provided by the Harlem Police Department, Police Chief Jerry Baldwin said.
Narcotics arrests nearly quadrupled in 2003 over the year before. Only six drug arrests were made in Harlem in 2002, but 23 were made last year.
"All of those arrests came from people selling illegal drugs out of motor vehicles," Baldwin said. "We've had some specialized training in drug detection to deal with that. I contribute those arrests to high visibility and more aggressive patrol techniques."
Keeping officers on the street and visible was a primary goal for Baldwin in 2003.
"Once our officers come in and correspond with the shift officer they are required to be on the street in 10 minutes," he said. "I want our officers to be seen by our citizens and by anyone thinking about doing something they shouldn't be doing"
Harlem experienced decreases for reports of domestic violence, battery and burglary attempts. Thefts rose slightly.
Except for rape, the Grovetown Department of Public Safety reported decreases in every major crime category.
Assaults and family violence, with 61, and burglary, with 27, were the lowest they have been since 1998.
"The laws have changed for family violence over the years, and the public is beginning to notice," Grovetown Capt. Gary Owens said. "Police now have a duty to act. Back in the 1980s if we got a family violence call we were usually forced to tell people to get a peace bond. Now, we can make arrests, if necessary."
There were six rapes reported last year, which is the most recorded in the city in six years.
"I don't like to use this as a catch-all, but the city has grown a lot, and I think that type of crime becomes more prevalent with growth," Owens said.
Grovetown also saw slightly fewer incidents of larceny and robbery.
Like the sheriff's office and Harlem police, Owens attributes Grovetown's decreases in crime to community involvement and more officer visibility, despite population growth.
"We added a bike patrol and added more community watches, as well as implemented a Safe Home program where people are looking out for each other and us more," he said. "We've also increased the amount of citizen contacts we have to make as part of our officer's daily duties. It helps keep the officers more involved in the neighborhoods he or she is protecting."
Notable increases and decreases in selected Columbia County crime statistics:
Columbia County Sheriff's Office
Burglary: 396 in 2002 and 291 in 2003
Juvenile offenses: 683 in 2002 and 837 in 2003
Grovetown Department of Public Safety
Burglary: 44 in 2002 and 27 in 2003
Rape: 3 in 2003 and 6 in 2003
Harlem Police Department
Narcotic arrests: 6 in 2002 and 23 in 2003
Domestic violence: 37 in 2002 and 19 in 2003
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