Saturday, October 25th, 2014
Mostly True
Foster
"Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade."

Bill Foster on Tuesday, July 9th, 2013 in a campaign brochure

Bill Foster says St. Petersburg 'crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade' since his election

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is arming himself for re-election with a line about less crime in the city.

"Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade," he said in a campaign brochure.

PolitiFact Florida is keeping an ear out for claims by St. Petersburg mayoral candidates ahead of this year’s election.

In this case, we already know the state’s crime rate is at a 42-year low from news reports and a previous fact-check of Gov. Rick Scott. We wanted to look at Foster’s claim about falling St. Petersburg crime and his actions to influence it.

We turned to crime reports filed by the St. Petersburg Police Department to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. We searched offenses, which include both arrests and crimes in which no arrest was made, going back to 2002.

Using that data, St. Petersburg’s crime rate yo-yoed from 2002-04 before decreasing steadily until 2008. The crime rate spiked in 2009, largely due to an increase in aggravated assault, larceny, burglary and stolen cars.

What happened in 2010, Foster’s first full year in office? The crime rate plunged to at least a 10-year low. The rate fell again in 2011 and again in 2012.

The biggest drop-offs occurred in the number of motor vehicle thefts, aggravated assaults, larcenies, burglaries and robberies, data show.

Here’s a chart that shows the decline:

Crime rate per 100,000 residents

2002

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

8354

8121

8429

7980

7931

7506

7465

8255

6727

6226

5931


What’s happening in St. Petersburg is happening across the country, so it’s tough to figure out how much of an effect local law enforcement plays. The national crime rate has been declining over the past 20 years and is at its lowest points in some kinds of crime since the early 1960s, said William Ruefle, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg criminology professor who analyzes local crime.

Ruefle credits modern, smarter policing. There’s also the all-time high rates of imprisonment around the country. A small number of people commit most crimes, so if they’re locked up, there will likely be fewer infractions, he said.

When we asked Foster about his initiatives to reduce crime, he directed us to responses to two questions in his Tampa Bay Times editorial board questionnaire about the city’s homelessness issue.

Foster pointed to several anti-crime initiatives that happened during his tenure, including a ban on panhandling; a joint police department-sheriff’s office task force focused on violent crime; new security cameras (thanks to Republican National Convention dollars); the creation of a gun bounty program targeting weapons owned illegally; adding a late-night downtown patrol unit to accommodate later bar hours; and establishing a squad that aims to address crime where it’s trending.

Should Foster take the credit for declining crime? To a degree, experts said.  

Most of the ideas came from experts at the police department, said St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, who has led the department since 2001. He credited Foster as being a good listener with a keen interest in crime around the city. (According to Harmon, Foster is the first mayor to get his own radio call sign. It’s X-0.)

"He knew what the problem was, but it was my staff’s job to come up with the solution," Harmon said. "I will say he’s been involved with all of those things he talked about in one way or another. He could nix it if he didn’t like it."

Police officials have "been scratching our heads" trying to figure out what’s driving the drop, Harmon said. Even though he can’t give a definitive reason for the big drop-off, he said the department has tried new tactics in recent years.

For example, police are better monitoring offenders on probation and parole, which played a role in significantly reducing car thefts, he said. And a new unit created in the spring responded to an uptick in auto thefts during the first few months of 2013 -- most of which involved the driver leaving keys in the ignition while running into a convenience store -- by posting reminders at gas stations and on social media.

"Crime prevention isn’t rocket science, but sometimes you just have to remind people: Don’t leave your keys in your car," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Foster wants to expand the department, which has applied for a four-year federal grant that would allow the city to add five more police officers. That would bring the force to 550 officers.

Ruefle said honing in on crime spots are most likely to have an effect on addressing crime. Foster’s actions on the homeless population have also had some effect on crime, he said, as homeless residents were responsible for 15 percent of the city’s arrests and "it is much lower now."

Still, it’s hard to say precisely what effect any of these policies have on the falling crime rate, he said.

The big question: How long will the drop last? Both Harmon and Ruefle said it can’t keep going down at this pace. Harmon expects an increase in cybercrime will present the department with new challenges.

In fact, police officials reported on July 10, 2013, that crime is up 6.2 percent for the first six months of 2013 compared to the first six months of 2012. The city, however, is still on pace to have a lower crime rate in 2013 than it did in the years before Foster took office.

Our ruling

Foster said, "Since I was elected, crime rates have been at their lowest in over a decade."

On the numbers, Foster is accurate. The crime rate is at its lowest since at least 2000. But in judging claims like these, we also must consider whether Foster is right to take credit for the drop. On that front, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, the mayor helped institute a number of new crime-fighting measures. But crime rates are down across the country, and it’s unclear how much the new crime-fighting tools helped St. Petersburg’s decline.

On balance, we rate the statement Mostly True.