As the county grows, the number of incidents handled by the Sheriff’s Office is also on the rise though the number remains lower than the national average per-capita rate.
"The increase in crime is due to population increase. That’s one of the unfortunate parts of growth. You get the negative along with the positive," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson.
Part 1 crimes — or crimes involving serious offenses and $200 or more in theft — increased from 1996 to 2003, except for homicides and for burglaries, which varied from year to year from more than 200 to more than 300 incidents. In that time period, aggravated assaults and auto thefts doubled, while larcenies remained at an increased level during the past three years. The county’s population more than tripled from 86,100 residents in 1990 to 205, 800 residents in 2002, according to the 2002 Annual Growth Summary released earlier this year.
"Even though some of the crimes are going up, the per-capita rate is low," Simpson said.
To address the population growth, the Sheriff’s Office implemented a community policing unit two years ago, initiated an anti-gang unit last month and this month started realigning and increasing the number of patrol sector boundaries.
THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE plans to double the number of sectors that individual deputies are assigned to enforce on their shifts. Currently, the county is divided into 15 sectors that will be redrawn based on population, call volume, crime rates and future development. The doubling will allow the Sheriff’s Office to increase coverage and may help justify its need for additional deputies, while the deputies will have more time to work proactively in their sectors instead of running from call to call, Simpson said. "We have to be able to put additional resources into these areas to be able to respond adequately or quickly in an emergency. … Response time will go down with an adequate number of deputies in the sectors," he said.
Two years ago, the Sheriff’s Office implemented a Community Policing Section to encourage law enforcement, businesses and communities to form partnerships and to work together to improve individual communities. Five community police officers are currently working in Sugarland Run, Countryside, Pembrooke, Newberry and the Sterling South Townhomes in Sterling Park in communities located in the eastern end of the county where most of the growth has occurred.
"Sometimes that eliminates criminal activity, and sometimes that is leading to quality of life issues that breed criminal activity," Simpson said.
Community policing includes community cleanups, graffiti removal, addressing abandoned vehicles and overgrown properties, and other improvement projects in communities and neighborhoods.
"Communication between law enforcement and the people is the most vital thing in preventing crime in a community," said Sgt. Rick Frye, supervisor of the Community Policing Section. "We can’t do it by ourselves. We need the commitment of local residents and neighborhoods to join us in the effort through Neighborhood Watch and providing information. We need the community to be concerned about its own streets and neighborhoods."
AT THE COUNTY level, Simpson works with the Board of Supervisors to increase staffing at the Sheriff’s Office and usually receives enough positions to maintain current levels from the year before. Next year, when a new board takes office and if he is reelected, Simpson plans to develop a three-year plan to increase staffing levels "to catch us up," he said. "We’re so far behind. In patrol, we’re 40 deputies behind what we should be."
Simpson plans to evaluate population, crime statistics and current staffing levels to help determine the office’s staffing needs. The nationally accepted average is one deputy per 1,000 population to provide patrol of a jurisdiction, while the county falls below that with .8 deputies per 1,000.
"For the staffing level we’re at, these guys are doing a tremendous job," Simpson said. "We’re still ahead of the curve when it comes to crime versus population growth."
Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors approved three investigator positions in the Fiscal Year 2004 operating budget to staff a four-member anti-gang unit. The Sheriff’s Office hired the investigators last month to join deputy Scott Mastandrea, who was assigned one and a half years ago to address gang activity in the county.