Officials with the Columbia County Sheriff's Office say the county's crime rate seems to be finally leveling off.
But when it comes to hard numbers, the department can't say whether overall crime has gone up or down for the first six months of this year.
Sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said there might have been a slight increase in overall crime for the first six months, but he said discrepancies in his department's computer reporting method since a computer virus struck the county's computer network will prevent the sheriff's office from releasing an overall crime percentage change for the remainder of this year.
"We've seen some inconsistencies," he said, referring to several reports that have been run on crime stats comparing the first six months of this year to the first six months in 2003. "... Because of the virus, it led (Sheriff Clay Whittle) to explore the possibility of the accuracy of these numbers."
A July 29 report ran on the sheriff's office computer system found crime had increased 2.6 percent from January to June when compared to the same time frame in 2003.
However, Capt. Morris said that figure isn't reliable because of the computer inconsistencies, adding "it could go up or down. We don't know."
The virus that hit the county's network was discovered on July 31. At the time, county officials said the virus wouldn't harm the county's computer data.
Morris said his department will hand count individual reports for 2004 starting Jan. 1. He said the sheriff's office now plans to compile overall crime statistics only on a yearly basis. Previously, the department has done so quarterly.
"It's better to look at an average over a long period of time," he said.
Capt. Morris said Sheriff Whittle also is considering purchasing new computer software to remedy the situation for next year.
"It's pretty obvious we have to install new software for '05," he said, adding that he wasn't aware of what the associated cost might be.
When it comes to some individual categories, though, the sheriff's office is able to provide statistics, saying they are accurate.
Based on those figures, most major crime categories for the county saw decreases from January to June compared to a year ago.
Reports of criminal trespass, which stood at 423 after the first half of 2003, dropped 3.3 percent, totaling 409 from January to June. Entering autos cases decreased by 9.2 percent from 152 to 138 in the first half of this year.
Whittle said his department stopped several crime rings in those areas in early 2003, which brought the statistics for the past year drastically down, making this year's drop seem small.
Armed robberies and burglaries also dropped this year. Armed robberies fell by two from 2003's five reported cases in its first six months. Burglaries slightly decreased by 1.6 percent, or 120, from the 122 reported from January to June in 2003.
Morris said since Sheriff Clay Whittle took office in 1996, the crime rate has dropped each year, totaling a 26 percent drop by the end of 2003 as the county's population grew by 17.5 percent during the same time frame.
"That is phenomenal in itself," Morris said. "But to maintain those numbers, that is the challenge that lies ahead."
And not all offenses this year have decreased.
"We are beginning to see the signs of a slow down, signs that the crime drop has bottomed out," Morris said.
According to the sheriff's office statistics, offenses committed by juveniles rose 11.3 percent. Thefts also went up, but by a smaller percentage - 1.8 percent from 661 to 673.
Whittle said the thefts increased, in part, because for the first time this year the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles has started requiring a police report before they will replace a stolen tag or decal.
"This is a six-month snapshot. We still have six months to go," Morris said. "We are always concerned if any crime goes up. Any increase is something we don't want to live with."
Though the drop in many offenses is lessening, Whittle doesn't think the drop is quite as low as it will go.
"We're not there yet," Whittle said. "But we are getting close."
Meanwhile, in Grovetown and Harlem, authorities have had no problems with compiling their overall and individual statistics.
Harlem Department of Public Safety Chief Jerry Baldwin saw crime drop inside his city by 21 percent for the first six months of this year compared to 2003's first half. He said there were no reported rapes, murders, sexual assaults or robberies in 2003 and none in any of those categories so far this year.
There have been no burglaries reported in Harlem this year through June, but for the same time frame a year ago there were three. Meanwhile, criminal trespass cases dropped from 17 to 13. Thefts also dropped from 38 to 32.
"What we have done is implemented more aggressive patrol techniques," Baldwin said.
In Grovetown, crime dropped nine percent overall, according to figures that were based on the city's 2003 population.
Capt. Gary Owens, of the Grovetown Department of Public Safety, said a steady decline in overall crime in his city is the result of aggressive community policing and events such as National Night out.
"All these programs get the community involved, and once you get the community involved, crime goes down," he said.
No murders were reported by Harlem, Grovetown or the county sheriff's office.
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