More deputies on the streets, greater community involvement and a booming economy are factors local authorities say gave Richmond County another year of declining crime in 1999.
In its final 1999 crime report, released last month, sharp decreases were seen in seven major categories: armed robbery, murder, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, theft by taking and theft of a motor vehicle.
The only category showing an increase was rape.
Armed robbery and robbery, which includes every instance where a weapon was not used, were down 14 and 29 percent, respectively, from 1998 to 1999.
Theft by taking dropped 18 percent from 1998; car theft fell 27 percent; aggravated assault dropped 14 percent; and burglary decreased 16 percent.
Homicides fell 50 percent, from 26 in 1998 to 13 in 1999, representing the sharpest drop among the crime categories.
But Chief Deputy Ronald Strength said it's impossible to pinpoint any one reason or program that has caused a decrease in homicides.
"(Murder's) not like armed robberies and burglaries where you can set up stakeouts and stop them," he said. "Homicides sometime happen over the supper table or at a bar or driving down the street. I don't attribute the decrease to anything other than that they're not happening."
There have been three homicides in Richmond County in 2000.
Rape rose 3 percent from 1998 to 1999, but Chief Deputy Strength said that was because of more victims coming forward annually to report such crimes.
Overall crime in Richmond County from 1997 to 1998 decreased at a greater rate than that statewide, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation statistics. Statewide numbers for 1999 will not be available for a few more weeks, a GBI spokesman said Thursday.
"What you can look at with these things is, number one, police visibility plays a major part in decreasing crime," Chief Deputy Strength said. "There are more officers out there, which acts as a deterrent."
A federal grant two years ago added 68 additional uniformed police officers to the department.
Another major factor in the crime rate drop has been more involvement by the community in fighting crime, Chief Deputy Strength said.
One element of the increased community involvement can be attributed to two Housing Authority Task Forces, each with six members, which has helped deputies know the residents and dynamics of specific areas.
"(More police presence) was one of the things the residents specifically asked for," said director of resident services Harden Oldfield. "They are able to tell who's supposed to be there and who isn't."
The addition of a 20-man Crime Suppression unit also gives the department a group of versatile officers who are able to support other task forces or road deputies in any given situation.
But the drop in crime goes beyond a larger police presence or funding increases, Chief Deputy Strength said.
"The economy has been great, and we've seen that it has an affect on crime in the community," he said.
The dramatic drop in crime is a source of pride for the sheriff's department, but Chief Deputy Strength said he is realistic about the numbers.
"Needless to say, we're very pleased that these numbers are low, and we're going to try and keep them low, but they can only go so low and start going back up," he said. "We would love to say it's not going to level off and keep going down, but we have to be realistic. It can't keep going lower and lower until we don't have crime."
Reach Mark Mathis at (706) 823-3227.
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