Athens crime surge worries returning UGA students

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Carson Strickland plans to be completely moved into his new Athens digs by this weekend, but until he's finished, he'll fret about the belongings he already brought from his home in Columbus.

"I'm pretty uncomfortable leaving my stuff here," the University of Georgia senior said as he hauled armloads of clothes into his rental home off Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

He has good reason to be concerned.

Last year, a burglar broke into the home Strickland and a roommate shared on Fifth Street, taking a laptop, TV and other valuables.

A car was broken into as well.

"From firsthand experience, it's never fun to be robbed," he said.

Athens-Clarke police are fighting a persistent burglary problem - holding community meetings, offering rewards, helping set up neighborhood watch groups - and just as that work seems to be paying off, thousands of college students are returning for the first day of classes at UGA on Aug. 17.

So, authorities are bracing themselves, knowing that students - moving in with expensive electronics such as flat-screen TVs and laptop computers, yet distracted with all they have to do - can make for easy targets.

"Everyone knows when the university is back in session, and when more people are here, and you are in the criminal element, you have more to choose from," said Lt. Mike McKeel, who supervises the Athens-Clarke police eastside Property Crime Unit.

Police are expecting 2009 will see a record of more than 2,000 burglaries, but the tide may be turning.

During the two-week period that ended Aug. 1, police fielded 58 burglary reports. That was down from the 60 break-ins reported the previous two weeks, and the 85 burglaries in the two weeks before that.

"We've come down a little, but we need to be careful we don't have a big spike when the students come back," McKeel said.

More and more residents are getting involved to thwart burglars, and police are hoping students will join in.

"Once they get to Athens, I would strongly recommend they get an alarm on their property and make it as difficult as possible for somebody to break into their house," McKeel said.

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