Crime overall decreased in Highlands County in 2012, surpassing statewide trends in the same direction, according to statistics released last week by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton, whose office primarily handles crime in unincorporated areas and the city of Avon Park, which makes up 87 percent of the county, said she’s pleased with the trends in Highlands County and the state.
“The trend is positive,” she said. “Crime is down.”
Sebring Police Chief Thomas Dettman said he’s also pleased with the progress that has been made in reducing crime. He said his statistics show that crime is lower than what it was 30 years ago and has fallen significantly since the peak crime years of 1997 and 1998.
Statewide, crime dropped 6.5 percent last year from 2011, according to a press release issued by Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
Overall in Highlands County, the number of major violent and property crimes fell from 3,183 in 2011 to 2,737 in 2012, a 14 percent decline. The crime rate, based on a formula starting with one per 100,000 residents, fell 14.2 percent.
Sebring’s major property and violent crimes fell 7.4 percent, with its crime rate dropping 7.6 percent.
On the other hand, the number of index crimes handled by the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office increased by 4.6 percent. Lake Placid also dealt with a 9.6 percent increase.
Benton said the 4.6 percent increase, which involves 92 crimes, appears to be from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office taking over law enforcement for the city of Avon Park for the last three months of 2012. The numbers showed that Avon Park handled an average of 46 crimes per month in 2011, which would total 123.
That indicates that crime handled by the sheriff’s office would have decreased if it hadn’t taken over Avon Park, Benton reasoned.
In the area covered by the sheriff’s office, the largest increases between 2011 and 2012 were in burglaries and motor vehicle thefts. Burglaries increased from 630 to 689, while motor vehicle thefts increased from 70 to 96. Aggravated assaults dropped from 229 to 141 and thefts declined from 1,128 to 1,123.
The report did not specify how many of those crimes were in Avon Park.
Benton said regardless of whether the numbers drop or increase from one year to the next, the statistics are more useful when looking at a few years.
Dealing with long-term issues in the community, including mental health and substance abuse, help keep crime down, she added.
For Sebring, between 2011 and 2012, the number of major property and violent crimes dropped from 553 to 512. Burglaries decreased from 147 to 136; thefts dropped from 358 to 318 and motor vehicle thefts fell from 13 to seven.
Dettman said crime prevention efforts have helped to reduce property crimes. One piece of advice officers give people is to lock their car doors, he said.
“They’ll (criminals) probably will move along to the one that is not unlocked,” he said. “Most of the thefts we see are items that are in plain view.”
Lake Placid’s crime rate increased by 5.1 percent. The largest increase was in thefts, from 65 in 2011 to 86 in 2012. Overall, the number of violent and property crimes increased from 104 to 114.
Police Chief James Fansler was unavailable for comment.