MERCED -- Overall reported crime in Merced went up 25 percent in 2012, the most dramatic upswing the city has seen in more than 10 years, according to data released Thursday by the Police Department.
The jump in reported crime isn't restricted to Merced. FBI statistics show it is on the rise statewide.
According to Merced police data, compiled by analyst Lance Eber, the department reported 5,356 Part 1 crimes in 2012, compared with 4,274 the prior year. Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson.
Each category of reported Part 1 crime in the city went up in 2012. The last time reported crime increased dramatically in Merced was 2001, when it went up 12 percent.
Violent crime went up 12 percent in 2012, with 1,203 incidents reported, compared with 1,073 in 2011. The city reported nine homicides last year, compared with seven in 2011. Merced's homicides peaked in 2004, with 13 reported.
Among violent crimes, robberies went up the most, from 149 in 2011 to 215 last year, a 44 percent increase.
Property crimes went up 30 percent last year, from 3,201 in 2011 to 4,153.
Is the economy to blame?
Merced Police Chief Norman Andrade said the economic downturn could be one factor responsible for the increase, but he also pointed to Assembly Bill 109, the state's prison realignment law.
Under AB 109, thousands of inmates who normally would have gone to state prison were reassigned to local jurisdictions.
With less space in the Merced County jail, Andrade said, offenders who commit lower level offenses are spending less time in jail, and sometimes being turned away.
"Drug addicts, the people we pick up for nonviolent crimes, nonsexual crimes and nongang-related crimes, they are being kicked out (of the jail)," Andrade said. "So that puts pressure back on us. They are not even keeping the people that they once kept."
Reductions to the police force may have played a role. Today's department has 84 sworn officers to police a city of more than 80,000 people, compared with 111 officers six years ago.
"With the concessions that were made, they are doing one heck of a job," Andrade said of his officers. "They have truly done more with less."
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said it remains to be seen whether the sudden rise in reported crime will have a direct correlation with the number of cases filed by his office.
He's surprised by the scale of the increase, but said it's difficult tell whether it's a trend or an anomaly. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and with respect to violent crime there have been spikes and valleys. It's really hard to make any assessment of the underlying causes," Morse said.
The rise in property crimes isn't surprising "on some levels," Morse said, noting that many lower level offenders in the community are addicts who steal to support their habit.
Until recently, the economic downturn in Merced didn't necessarily equal more crime. Statistics show the city experienced a steady decrease in reported crime from 2005 until 2011.
Alex Wahlley, a professor of economics at UC Merced, said it can take time for crime rates to be affected by the economic factors.
As people are unemployed for longer periods of time and exhaust their resources, Wahlley said, some turn to crime as a means of getting by.
"Sometimes it takes time for those things to show up in the data, as people find themselves in a more difficult situation over time," he said.
Wahlley said he believes Merced's "been through the bottom" of the economic downturn. As fiscal times improve, he said, crime levels should go down, although there's still "quite a ways to go."
The number of reported assaults with guns in Merced went down. The city reported 48 assault with guns in 2012, compared with 71 in 2011, a decrease of roughly 32.4 percent. Assaults with guns included incidents where there was a shooting victim or an intended target, Eber said.
The number of knife assaults rose about 33.3 percent in 2012, with 44 reported, compared with 33 in 2011, Eber said.
Data released by the FBI this week compared nine categories of crimes for the first part of 2011 with the same time frame in 2012 in cities with a population of 100,000 or more.
Violent crime is up 4 percent in the state, including a 7.6 rise in murders, a 7.8 percent hike in rape and a 2.8 percent increase in assault. Other crime rates rose, including robbery (5 percent), burglary (10.3 percent) and auto theft (12.8 percent), according to the FBI.
The overall FBI figures show the highest crime increases in the West, driven by significant rises in California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Nevada; Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Texas had either minor increases or reductions in most categories.
The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A FEW STATISTICS
A closer look at Merced crime in 2012:
26 rapes in 2012, compared with 20 in 2011, a 30 percent increase
953 assaults in 2012, compared with 897 in 2011, a 6 percent increase
953 burglaries in 2012, compared with 802 in 2011, a 19 percent increase
2,709 thefts in 2012, compared with 2,044 in 2011, a 33 percent increase
434 auto thefts in 2012, compared with 313 in 2011, a 39 percent increase
57 incidents of arson in 2012, compared with 42 in 2011, a 36 percent increase.