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Clayton Chief says economic crisis fuels spike in crimes

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

With rates of reported burglary up for the third years in a row, Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner is looking with concern at the economic crisis, a crisis that could cause an increase in crime.

"Economic indicators are reliable, as related to crime," the chief said. "With the economic impact to the community, people start losing their jobs, desperation kicks in and they make bad decisions."

A review of Clayton County crime statistics shows there have been 2,926 burglaries between January and the end of September or this year. During the same period last year, there were 2,185 burglaries. The statistics show a 33 percent increase in burglary reports.

The same statistics show robbery reports increased by 3.7 percent, and thefts increased by 20 percent.

Most of the burglaries and thefts occur during the daytime and have been attributed to juveniles and older teenagers who aren't in school. Some, though, are thought to be connected to financially desperate adults.

One example is Curtis Bullock, who is set to go to trial next week on charges of armed robbery. Bullock, according to the allegations of police and prosecutors, robbed a Waffle House in October 2007. When arrested, Bullock allegedly told police he had been unemployed for eight months and needed to steal the $538 to pay rent, and not get evicted. According to police reports, the 26-year-old father-of-two wanted to apologize to the cashier he'd robbed, and court records show Bullock didn't have any sort of criminal record.

Turner said the recent gas shortage led to an immediate increase in gas thefts and news of economic downturn has been met with thefts of copper wiring and catalytic converters, scrap metal that can bring some cash at recycling yards.

"You're looking at people who are losing their jobs, gas prices are up, there are a lot of factors contributing to people being frustrated and upset and they're unfortunately taking it out in the wrong way," Turner said.

At the same time, the economic crisis could hurt the police department, by cutting into the county's budget. The department has already cut some non-essential personnel and found places to scrimp, but Turner doesn't expect to get a substantial budget increase anytime soon.

In Clayton County, the tax assessor has reduced the assessed value of 27,000 houses and kept about 46,000 more house at the same assessed value as they were before. Thus, the county's 2009 budget will likely be smaller than this year's.

Eldrin Bell, the Board of Commissioners chairman, said the county's financial officials are "watching the market very closely, very closely," and trying to protect the county's budget.

Turner said he plans to respond to the budget restraints by relying on drug seizure funds. So far, in 2008, the county's drug enforcement agents have seized about $28 million in cash, with the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Last year, at this time, the agents had taken about $7 million.

"We have a top notch drug unit," Turner said. "These drug funds are going to help us out in some areas ... We're probably going to have to depend on drug funds more than in previous years."

The drug unit has also seized cars, and some of those vehicles are being used in the county's burglary suppression unit. There are currently seven department vehicles which are unmarked, undercover and patrolling neighborhoods with heavy burglary rates.

Leaning more heavily on seizure money, as well as pushing for federal grants to fund additional positions, Turner's planned response to the rise in burglaries and thefts includes continuing the suppression work and increasing community cooperation.

Some of the increase in the crime statistics can be attributed to the success of the burglary task force and community-oriented policing efforts resulting in more 911 calls, according to Turner.

"We're asking people to call in, and they're picking up the phone," the chief said. "The numbers always going up doesn't always mean a bad thing ... Traditionally, people would turn their heads at crime, but now we're getting reports of suspicious activity and stolen bicycles, stuff where people would have said it's trivial, now they're reporting everything. And we want them to call. We need them to call."

Turner said he urges people, at community meetings, to "be the nosey neighbor," but that also translates into an increase in reports.

"The numbers represent paperwork," Turner said. "Don't gauge it by the numbers, gauge it by the communities themselves. There's a difference between where it was, and where it is -- Do the people feel safer? When you see people aren't scared of gangs and aren't scared to go outside, there are kids out playing, people out jogging and walking and they're enjoying the neighborhood, then you can see it's working."