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Down economy forces the hands of hard-up burglars
Recession creates new criminals who steal to survive
Gainesville Police Officer Ed Roach patrols city streets Friday afternoon near Industrial Boulevard. Burglaries are up in the city limits compared to last year and the economy is to blame, officials say.

Don’t be a victim

Learn how to protect yourself from burglaries and other crimes by contacting crime prevention officers who provide free home inspections and help organize neighborhood watches.

Gainesville Police Department: Officer Joe Britte, 770-534-5251

Hall County Sheriff’s Office: Deputy Stephen Wilbanks, 770-531-6900

In every recession since the 1950s, experts say, crime rates have risen as the economy slides.

That is no exception in Gainesville and Hall County. A year after the economic crisis began in earnest, local statistics show most crime numbers remain stable — but home break-ins are on the rise.

In Gainesville, residential and business burglaries in the first eight months of 2009 are up 24 percent from the same period last year, a total of 211 through Aug. 31. Hall County, with a much larger overall population, saw a 40 percent increase in burglaries in the first six months of 2009 versus the first half of 2008, with 400 through June 31.

The slumping economy and a local unemployment rate approaching double digits has created a new class of criminal, officials say.

“A lot of our burglaries in the past were committed by drug users,” Hall County Sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said. “Now we’re seeing out-of-work people who are committing thefts just to survive.”

Said Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper, “I think we have some folks who have been driven to criminal activity out of desperation.”

The increase in property crimes is no surprise to those in law enforcement. Police and sheriff’s officials predicted more crime was coming as the economy took a nosedive late last year.

“There’s a very clear connection between economic downturns and an upturn in the crime rate,” said Dean Rojek, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia and an expert on crime trends.

Rojek said there is typically a “natural delay” between the onset of a recession and an increase in crime.

“Many people have a buffer and can cope for six months to a year, but then they get to that level of desperation,” Rojek said. “They have no options, they have to live, and they start cutting corners.”

Most burglaries occur during the day while children are at school and parents are at work. Jewelry, electronics, flat-screen televisions and power tools are the most attractive items to steal. Burglars may break a window, kick open a door or just walk into an unlocked house.

Criminals look for quick and easy hits, which is why Hooper and Strickland both recommend audible alarm systems to scare off would-be burglars.

Both agencies also provide free crime prevention tips and help in starting neighborhood watches.

The neighborhood watches in place have prevented the numbers from growing even more, officials say. Both agencies have also put manpower into crime suppression units that focus on problem areas. Special operations aimed at cracking down on career criminals through saturated patrols have helped slow burglary rates, though they can’t be sustained over more than a few weeks because of manpower limitations.

In fact, the economy has not only led to an increase in burglaries but also has handicapped law enforcement response. A furlough program instituted by Hall County has cut 4,000 hours each month from the sheriff’s office operations, Strickland said.

If there is any good news, it is that violent crime has not risen significantly in the city or the county since the recession’s onset. In Gainesville, crimes against people were down 22 percent in the first eight months of 2009. Hall County’s robbery, aggravated assault and rape numbers are virtually the same this year as in 2008.

Hooper said he was glad the economy has so far not led to an increase in assaults and other domestic-related violence.

“Sometimes you do see an increase, because of people being on edge,” he said.

All things considered, the chief believes it could be worse.

“I’d rather have all zeros, but I am pleased that the numbers aren’t higher,” Hooper said. “I knew with this economy, we were going to see an increase. It’s touched everybody.”

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