Despite rising population and a declining economy, crime rates in most areas of Columbia County dropped in 2008.
The Columbia County Sheriff's Office reported a 2.1 percent decrease in crimes: 5,262 in 2007 to 5,154 in 2008, according to recently released statistics.
"Our folks are literally working hard," Sheriff Clay Whittle said. "Usually when you see an increase in your population, you see an increase in your crime rate, especially your calls for services. Certainly, we've seen the calls for services go up. Fortunately our crime rate is going down."
With an estimated 15 percent population increase during the past decade, for an overall population of more than 110,000 in the county, Whittle said the crime rate has decreased by 12 percent.
Though the crime rate is expected to level off, with minor fluctuations each year, Whittle said his staff works to prevent crime from rising along with the number of rooftops.
"We believe in ... proactive policing," Whittle said. "You cannot be reactive any more. Just going to a call, taking the report, hopefully catching the bad guy does not solve the problem. You've got to look and see where the root of the problems are."
The sheriff's office reported a 7 percent decrease in burglaries, from 345 in 2007 to 321 in 2008. Criminal trespasses dropped to 734, an 18.3 percent decrease from 898 in 2007.
The news wasn't all good, though.
Robberies, armed robberies and shoplifting increased in 2008. Armed robberies rose 15.4 percent to 15 in 2008, and robberies grew 11.1 percent to 10. The sheriff's office reported a 25.1 percent rise in shoplifting incidents, from 167 to 209.
Sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris said the rise in shoplifting is not necessarily because of the economy or a rise in the number of shoplifters. Retailers simply are catching more shoplifters, he said.
"Some of that (rise) depends on how aggressive retailers are with their loss-prevention strategies," Morris said. "A lot of those numbers are driven by those security forces. The more they apprehend, the larger the increase."
Whittle said he meets with the office's command staffers and crime analysts each week to identify trouble spots.
From those meetings, Whittle said, road patrol deputies use directed patrolling. Random patrols don't work in the county, he said. Deputies are provided specific information about where to concentrate their patrols and what to look for.
Police in Grovetown and Harlem also said they use directed patrolling.
"Where we are having more problems at, we're putting more people in those areas, but we're still continuing to patrol all the neighborhoods," Grovetown Department of Public Safety Chief Al Robinson said. "We still have the routine, but we still have directed (patrols) if there is a problem."
The city showed a 5.6 percent increase in calls from 12,797 in 2007 to 13,523 in 2008. That includes reports of robbery, theft and the city's first homicide in more than a decade -- the Sept. 24 killing of Rickey Gibson.
Robinson attributes the rise in call volume, in part, to the growing population, which he estimates around 10,000, and to the economy because more people are at home after losing their jobs.
The city saw an 88 percent rise in criminal trespassing, from 75 reports in 2007 to 141. Burglaries stayed the same, at 99, and incidents of motor vehicle theft dropped by 40 percent, from 20 to 12.
Robinson said he has noticed an increase in resident involvement in identification and prevention of crime.
"We have found, in the last few months, that we have a lot more citizens calling when, in prior years, they wouldn't call," Robinson said. "They'd see something and they wouldn't call. ...
"We tell them, if you don't think something is right, call us. Let us determine if it is right or not."
Whittle said working with the community -- residents and business owners -- is essential to keeping crime at bay as the population grows.
"You've got to work in concert," Whittle said. "There's only so many police officers and there are ... at least 110,00 citizens in this county, and we recognize the value of those eyes and ears.
"If you let the public know what is going on, they'll help you everyday. They'll help you put an end to that crime."
The Harlem Department of Public Safety reported a marked drop -- 35 percent -- in the number of calls for service, from 4,945 to 3,166.
Those calls for service included crimes, traffic violations, arrests and noncrime-related calls such as those pertaining to escorting funerals and assisting other agencies.
The city's crime statistics show no robberies in 2007 or 2008, and three burglaries in 2008, following none in 2007. Burglary attempts and alarms rose 42 percent to 120, from 70 in 2007. Burglary constitutes stealing from a residence or business, and robbery is stealing from a person.
Harlem Assistant Public Safety Director Chuck Meadows, who is serving as interim director after Director Jerry Baldwin's Jan. 23 resignation, said police visibility is a big crime deterrent in Harlem.
Though directed patrolling is used, Meadows said random patrols work well in the small city, too.
"It does make a difference for us," Meadows said. "You can almost see from one part of town to the other if you are at the red light."
Even though crime seems to be steadying, despite the rising number of residents, Morris said the battle against crime is ongoing.
"Crime is everywhere and it affects everyone," Morris said. "It is a team effort and everyone needs to participate. It is not a neighborhood problem, it is a community problem."
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