SEBRING -In 1993, 323 violent crimes were reported in Highlands County. By 2010 though, that number had dropped to 149.
Why? Sheriff Susan Benton could think of a dozen reasons. The biggest: "We were coming out the bad 1980s."
That agrees with a Pew Research Center look-back at 50 years of data: the U.S. gun homicide rate rose in the 1960s, surged in the 1970s, and peaked in 1980s and early 1990s.
Technology also played a huge role in crime statistics, Benton said. "In 1993, we had hardly heard of DNA."
Another change in crime-fighting methodology was the use of K-9s, Benton said. "They knew if they ran from us that the dogs would be turned on them."
Chief Deputy Mark Schrader questioned the validity of the numbers, even though they are official.
"They've cleaned up UCR reporting," Schrader said, referring to the methodology of sheriff's and police departments who are responsible for reporting crimes to the FBI.
The Highlands County numbers were complied during the terms of three different sheriffs: Benton, her predecessor Howie Godwin, and his predecessor Joe Sheppard. During those two decades, several police chiefs also filtered in and out of Sebring, Avon Park and Lake Placid police departments.
Benton said definitions of Uniform Crime Report Statistics kept changing, which skewed the numbers. Aggravated assault, for instance, fell 61 percent from 289 in 1993 to 115 in 2010. An assault, as defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is an attack or an attempted assault without a weapon resulting in no injury or minor injuries - bruises, black eyes, cuts, scratches or swelling - or in undetermined injuries requiring less than two days of hospitalization.
In 1993, for instance, a domestic battery may not have been reported at all, Benton said.
The current definition of battery could be a threat that the victim reasonably believes the assailant would act upon, said Liz Perlata, who keeps UCR statistics for the sheriff's department. "A domestic would be among the 115."
Deputies also changed their approach to community policing, Benton said. Instead of enforcing the law, deputies built community rapport on their beats.
Benton has pushed the prevention philosophy, bringing drug counselors inside the prison with Jail Alternatives to Substance Abuse and mental health counselors to help inmates obtain anti-psychotic medicines.
Weeks ago, Schrader was walking through Highlands County Jail and recognized the faces of two juveniles - twins. "I said, 'I know your dad.'" He had arrested their father.
It's a fact, Benton said: the sons and daughters of convicted criminals are at greater risk for committing crimes.
"I'd love to do group therapy for children of inmates," Benton said, "do something for the children, to help them understand it. If we had the wherewithal."
Paralleling the general decline in violent crime, gun crimes also fell from a mid-1990s peak, Pew found.
"Compared with 1993, the firearm homicide rate was 49 percent lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation's population grew," said a May 7 Pew report. "The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm - assaults, robberies and sex crimes - was 75 percent lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall - with or without a firearm - also is down 72 percent over two decades."
The firearm homicide rate fell in the 1990s, stopped in 2001 and resumed slowly in 2007. The victim rate for other gun crimes plunged in the 1990s, then declined more slowly from 2000 to 2008. Rates began ticking upward again in 2011, Pew said.
However, due in part to the national attention paid to school shootings, 56 percent of Americans think gun crime is higher than 20 years ago; only 12 think the gun crime rate is lower, Pew said.
That was Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin's perception too. "It seems like we still see a lot of gun crimes. I don't know our statistics off the top of my head, but our numbers are not down."
Houchin suggested that tougher sentencing guidelines for judges is another reason why crime statistics declined. He prosecuted crimes in Highlands County in the 1980s and returned in 1993. "Back around that time, for new people going in, they stopped the parole system. They had to serve 85 percent of their sentences, so the more violent people were staying in prison. It was not just a revolving door going right back out on the street."
Benton and Schrader think Florida's "10-20-Life" campaign played a part in slowing local gun crimes.
For pulling a gun during a crime, the state imposes a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. Ten years are also authorized if the criminal possessed a gun during certain felonies or attempted felonies.
For firing the gun during a crime, the mandatory minimum sentence is 20 years.
For injuring or killing a victim with the gun during a crime, a mandatory minimum sentence from 25 years to life in prison is authorized.
Before 1998, the mandatory sentence for using a gun in a violent felony was three years in prison. That year, guns were used in 31,643 violent felonies in Florida.
That's when candidate Jeb Bush proposed the 10-20-Life law in his campaign platform. The Florida Legislature passed the governor's proposal, which took effect July 1, 1999.
The official effect: according to the Florida Parole Commission, violent gun-related crimes decreased 26.4 percent by 2000.
"There was a huge marketing push," Benton said. "I think it made a huge difference."
Posters warned of the law, but Benton said word also spread on the street: "Use a gun and you're done."
Pew reported, "The sharp decline in the U.S. gun homicide rate, combined with a slower decrease in the gun suicide rate, means that gun suicides now account for six-in-ten firearms deaths, the highest share since at least 1981."
Researchers have studied the decline in firearm crime and violent crime for many years, and although there are theories to explain the decline, there is no consensus among those who study the issue as to why it happened.
There is no disagreement that the U.S. has more civilian firearms, both total and per capita, than other nations.
After the mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school in December, the public paid close attention to the firearms topic. According to an April 2013 Pew Research Center survey, "No story received more public attention from mid-March to early April than the debate over gun control."
School shootings are a matter of great public interest and concern, Pew said. But mass shootings are a relatively small share of shootings overall. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics review, homicides claiming at least three lives accounted for less than 1 percent of all homicide deaths from 1980 to 2008.
Looking at the larger topic of firearm deaths, there were 31,672 deaths from guns in the U.S. in 2010; 19,392 were suicides.
Why did crime increase?
The post-World War II baby boom produced in the 1960s and 1970s a large numbers of teenagers, who are more prone to commit crimes. As they aged, the street market flared for crack cocaine, especially in big cities, said a National Academy of Sciences review. Young drug sellers had a greater willingness to use guns.
However, by the early 1990s, most baby boomers were middle aged or older, cocaine fell out of vogue, and crack markets withered in part because of lesser demand. At the same time, a rising number of people ages 30 and older were incarcerated,due in part to stricter laws, which also restrained violence.
What is less clear, researchers say, is whether innovative policing strategies and police crackdowns on use of guns by younger adults actually reduced crime.
Researchers continue to debate other factors.
"According to one hypothesis, legalization of abortion after the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision resulted in fewer unwanted births," Pew said, "and unwanted children have an increased risk of growing up to become criminals."
Schrader and Benton were aware of the idea; neither expressed an opinion on its validity.
Another link: firearm ownership and gun homicides. "The causal direction of this relationship remains in dispute, however, with some researchers maintaining that firearm violence elevates rates of gun ownership, but not the reverse," the National Academy of Sciences said.
Benton knows gun ownership in Highlands is higher, based on the number of fingerprints taken at the sheriff's office to complete the concealed weapon permit for the State of Florida.
Internationally, a decline in crime, especially property crime, has been documented since the mid-1990s. According to the authors of a 30-country study on criminal victimization, there is no general agreement on all the reasons for this decline.
There is a general consensus that the shrinking proportion of adolescents across Europe is causing decreases. They also cite wider use of security measures in homes and businesses.
Pew's findings are based mainly on analysis of death certificates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the Census Bureau. Pew's report also quotes from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.