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Looking ahead: Slumping economy may mean more crime and fewer resources

Law enforcement's challenges for 2009 include budget cuts

POSTED: January 1, 2009 11:45 p.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Hall County Sheriff's officers gather for a New Year's Eve patrol division briefing prior to the evening shift.

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Hall County’s two biggest law enforcement agencies could face the two-pronged challenge of an economic crunch this year — fewer resources and the possibility of an increase in some crimes.

At the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, some non-emergency response times will be longer as the county’s furlough program takes away 4,000 man hours from the department each month.

At the Gainesville Police Department, furloughs aren’t in the picture yet, but hiring is frozen, training budgets slashed and fuel conservation continues even as gas prices have stabilized.

The unknown factor for law enforcement in 2009 could be the crime rate. Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper isn’t optimistic.

“When the economy gets bad, business slows down,” Hooper said. “Our profession picks up. I think the economy has more impact on crime than anything, because people become more desperate. Generally we do see an increase in crime during a downturn in the economy.”

Hooper added that the crimes that see an increase tend to be thefts, auto break-ins and other property crimes.

A slowdown in tax collections has led both the county and city to look at ways to meet their budgets. And while public safety is a government priority, it isn’t immune from the pinch.

“For the last several years, the biggest issue we had to worry about was growth,” Hooper said. “One of the biggest things we’re facing in 2009 as a government is lack of growth. This is going to be a pretty challenging year to prepare a budget for.”

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic said after a two-year stretch in which his office was re-accredited, the new Hall County Jail opened, patrol zones expanded and a local-federal

immigration enforcement program started, this year’s new goals for the agency will be modest in comparison.

“As we look to 2009, it may be our least ambitious as far as program development and expansion, but it might be our most challenging,” Cronic said.

Still, both agencies have some new plans for the new year.

Among plans at the Hall County Sheriff’s Office:

  • A $330,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will allow the sheriff’s office to create a biological and chemical response team that will work with Hall County Fire and Emergency Services.
  • The sheriff’s office hopes to relocate the multi-agency narcotics squad and gang task force to better offices with the help of federal funds through the FBI.
  • A $175,000 grant through the Georgia Terrorism Intelligence Project will provide investigators with training, equipment, software and access to computer databases that can be used in all criminal investigations.

At the Gainesville Police Department, Hooper wants to continue to strengthen contacts between officers and neighborhood residents with increased visibility and traffic enforcement.

Other goals for Gainesville Police:

  • Continued planning for the transition into a new public safety headquarters in 2010. A SPLOST referendum that includes the 50,000 square-foot facility will be voted on by city residents in March.
  • Using crime analysis, special crime suppression units and other strategies to combat property crimes like auto break-ins, thefts and burglaries. “It’s about trying to do things a little smarter, and put our folks where we need them,” Hooper said.
  • Preparing for another visit in December 2009 from the Commission for the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies, which last accredited the Gainesville Police Department in 2006. It will be the sixth assessment visit from CALEA since the department was first accredited 15 years ago.

Cronic said the scheduling plan the sheriff’s office implemented in response to the county’s mandatory one-day-per-month furlough program “appears to be working,” though he says non-emergency response times have been affected.

“My hope is the economy will turn around and we can quit having to do this shortly,” Cronic said. “But the reality is it may not. And if it doesn’t, we have a plan in place.”



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