Whether overall crime increased, dropped or remained steady along the Treasure Coast from 2020 to 2021 – the most recent period from which statistics are available – is tough to tell.
That’s because the longtime measuring stick of crime in the state, known as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program that historically tracked seven “major” crimes, including murder, is changing.
The new system captures dozens more offense categories, and includes more detailed information on offenders, victims, arrestees and other information to give an enhanced picture of crime-related data in each county.
The FBI has been encouraging agencies nationwide to transition to the new system.
Some local agencies, such as the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Stuart Police, only could report about nine months of numbers for 2021 because of the switch.
So an annual crime report makes it appear these agencies investigated fewer crimes than they likely did.
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“They’re not complete,” Lt. Mike Gerwan, Stuart police spokesperson, said of the 2021 numbers. “If you look at them, you would think that’s the whole year and it’s not.”
The same annual FDLE report shows Vero Beach police investigated zero major crimes in 2021 − a 100% drop from the 284 in 2020. Vero Police Chief David Currey said the “zero” reported this year is because of the switch.
“When you have zero crime, we should get an award, right?” Currey joked.
Other agencies, such as sheriff’s offices in St. Lucie and Indian River counties and police in Port St. Lucie, Fort Pierce and Sebastian, reported the full 2021 year to the UCR program, so comparisons to 2020 can be made.
According to the FBI, the UCR program has provided crime statistics since 1930, getting information from law enforcement agencies across the country to give an idea of crime in the nation. Agencies participate voluntarily.
The UCR program in Florida since 1971 tracked the crimes of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft, according to the FDLE.
The new method in Florida, called the Florida Incident-Based Reporting System, collects 56 more offense categories.
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Additional offenses include credit card/automated teller machine fraud, identity theft, hacking/computer invasion, drug/narcotic violations, welfare fraud, prostitution, weapon law violations, shoplifting and DUI related crimes.
The previous program listed the most serious offense of an incident, so if a person committed aggravated assault and robbery only the robbery was reported. The new system allows reporting of 10 criminal offenses per incident.
Crime in St. Lucie County
Crimes investigated by the Sheriff’s Office and police in Fort Pierce and Port St. Lucie dropped in 2021 compared to the year before, FDLE records state.
Each agency investigated four murders in 2021, which in each area is fewer than in 2020. There also were fewer robberies and burglaries investigated by each agency, despite an increase in population in each jurisdiction, FDLE records show.
Fort Pierce police reported 1,085 crimes in the seven “major” categories in 2021, down from 1,189 in 2020. A big decline came in motor vehicle thefts, which decreased from 132 to 77.
Deputy Chief Kenny Norris attributed the overall drop to police being more interactive with the community.
“It’s getting better. It seems to be each year,” Norris said. “The community is a big part of this.”
St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Brian Hester said a number of initiatives at his agency may have impacted the overall decline from 1,369 crimes in 2020 to 1,292 last year.
He noted the agency’s real time crime center and intelligence unit, which began about October 2020, analyzes and monitors a variety of trends and information and uses tools including surveillance cameras and license plate reading devices.
“There’s six detectives there, and there’s five analysts and their job is basically to … predict crime to help prevent crime,” Hester said.
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Port St. Lucie Police Chief John Bolduc said his department’s decline from 1,930 crimes in 2020 to 1,836 last year, even as Port St. Lucie’s population grew by more than 11,000 to 214,514, might partially stem from a longstanding policing philosophy that emphasizes identifying problems quickly through crime analysis, putting resources in place to address those and an accountability aspect to “follow up and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”
He also credited a good relationship between the community and police, the city’s integrated nature and support from city government.
Bolduc said changing to the new incident-based crime reporting system will better illustrate the work performed by law enforcers.
“I think you’ll see we’re a lot busier,” he said. “Nowhere in (the previous system) is there anything about drug offenses. Nowhere in there is there anything about mental health calls for service.”
Crime in Martin County
The 2021 annual report contains about nine months of crime data from the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and Stuart Police Department because of the switch to the new system.
Sheriff William Snyder said in general it appeared his agency is investigating fewer crimes against property and persons yet an “exponential increase in mental health crisis calls.”
Snyder’s agency is “inundated” with calls for service related to quality-of-life issues, including drug overdoses, attempted suicides, accidental overdose resulting in death, mental health crises and domestic violence, he said.
Gerwan said burglaries and theft, such as shoplifting, were significant crimes in Stuart in 2021.
Crime in Indian River County
The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office reported a drop in the seven major crimes to 1,224 in 2021 from 1,560 in 2020. The sheriff’s office investigated four murders in 2021, and three in 2020.
Sheriff Eric Flowers suspected the agency’s license plate reader system made a difference in tamping down crime. Installation of the cameras, of which there are dozens, began in early 2021.
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Flowers said he wanted to get started early with the new crime reporting program, but the agency is working through software limitations.
“(It) is a significantly better way for us to measure crime, but it’s going to take everybody coming online,” he said.
Sebastian police was the only major Treasure Coast law enforcement agency in 2021 to report a crime increase.
The agency reported 300 of the major seven crimes last year, up from 176 in 2020. Much of the rise came in larceny, which grew to 212 from 132. There was one murder.
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Sebastian Police Capt. Tim Wood said he thought the ability of people to wear masks in public without issue now than before the coronavirus pandemic may have played a role.
“Several years ago, if you went in and you had a bandana covering your nose and your mouth, people would be calling (police) almost immediately,” he said.
In Vero Beach, Currey said his agency deals mainly with thefts and burglaries.
“People do not secure their cars, and they leave their valuables in their cars,” Currey said. “We see everything that larger agencies do, just not necessarily the volume.”