Crime Dips in Florida, First Coast; LAW ENFORCEMENT VISIBILITY Rutherford Says More Officers on the Street Helps; Clay County Sees Uptick in Domestic Violence

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Byline: DANA TREEN and DEIRDRE CONNER

Crime was down both locally and statewide for the first half of the year, new state figures show.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report comparing the first six months of 2009 with the same time period last year shows that violent crime dropped 9.7 percent. Nonviolent crime was down 7.6 percent.

Duval County, which for a decade has had the highest per-capita murder rate of all metropolitan areas in the state, saw a decrease in murders, putting the county on track to have substantially fewer for the year. Murders in Duval County hit 125 in 2007, a high not seen since 1993.

Overall crime in Duval was down 9.7 percent when compared with the first six months of last year, although not significantly different than 2006 and a little lower than 2007.

The biggest and most long-term drops were in larcenies, down 8.6 percent, and motor vehicle thefts, down 32 percent. Both also are down when compared with early 2007 and 2006.

Sheriff John Rutherford attributed the improvements to having more police officers on the street, an increase in community involvement (such as a higher number of tips, more community discussion of the problem of crime and greater membership in the Sheriff's Advisory Councils) and more aggressive prosecution of criminals since new State Attorney Angela Corey took office.

Rutherford said that through June, which is when the report ends, 300 fewer felony cases had been dropped from the same period last year.

The role of the economic downturn - which spiked unemployment and foreclosure rates - is unclear. While there were drops in overall crime in most North Florida counties, there were trends within the statistics that law enforcement officials found disturbing.

In Clay County, where overall crime dropped 8.6 percent, Sheriff Rick Beseler said there has been an increase in domestic-violence cases.

"What I have seen that is very alarming and disturbing is a 44 percent increase in domestic abuse," he said.

He said child-abuse cases also have been up. A poor economy may be playing a role as people lose jobs and their frustrations surface, he said. An increase in domestic-violence awareness programs may improve reporting, but that does not stop the crimes from occurring.

"They are very hard to predict and prevent," Beseler said.

Rapes in the six-month comparison were up from 44 to 57 in Clay. Aggravated assaults remained about even while, like in Duval County, there were big drops in burglary and auto theft. …

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