Despite economy, Modesto-area crime down this year

High unemployment. More people on food stamps. Fewer owning their homes. Yet for all the signs of recession, something is missing: more crime.

Experts are scratching their heads over why crime has ebbed during this recession, making it different from other economic downturns of the past half-century. Early guesses include jobless people at home keeping closer watch for thieves, or the population getting older -- and older people commit fewer crimes.

Preliminary FBI crime figures for the first half of 2009 show crime falling across the nation, even at a time of high unemployment, foreclosures and layoffs.

Modesto is sharing in some parts of that happy trend. Car thefts in the city dropped significantly, as did robberies and rapes. Property crimes have dipped a bit.

Acting Police Chief Mike Harden said the decline in car thefts caught his eye. Modesto saw 674 such thefts in the first half of this year, compared with 757 during the same period in 2008. That's good news in a city that long has been dogged with the dubious title of "car theft capital of America."

Harden said the drop-off can be traced to stepped-up enforcement by the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force and the public's growing awareness. Law enforcement has pushed a consistent message to drivers to keep their vehicles protected in garages or by alarm systems.

"I think the community has listened, the community has cooperated and said we have some responsibility here also," Harden said.

Harden called the crime drop encouraging in light of reduced staffing levels among nonsworn police personnel. The department's statistics show that as of the end of November, serious crimes in Modesto have dropped by 4 percent compared with last year.

There are two dark spots on Modesto's crime list: arson and homicides.

In the first half of the year, arson in Modesto shot up 28 percent. Modesto Fire Chief Jim Miguel said that trend can be traced to the downturn. Many of the fires are in vacant houses where squatters start a fire to keep warm, not necessarily with the intent of burning down the building.

"If you look nationwide in the areas that have higher vacancy rates in businesses or dwellings, you see a much higher arson rate," Miguel said.

Although the FBI numbers show a decline in homicides in Modesto in the first half of the year, a violent second half has changed that. As of Monday, the city had recorded 20 homicides this year, the same number as in all of 2008.

Nationwide, murder and manslaughter fell 10 percent for the first half of the year.

"That's a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions," said Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis who has studied crime trends.

Rosenfeld said he did not expect the 10 percent drop in killings to be sustained over the entire year, as more data is reported. But he said the broad declines are exceptional, given that past recessions stretching back to the 1950s have boosted crime rates.

Property crimes, in particular, were expected to rise.

They haven't.

Nationally, property crimes fell by 6.1 percent, and violent crimes by 4.4 percent, according to the six-month data collected by the FBI. Crime rates haven't been this low since the 1960s and are nowhere near the peak reached in the early 1990s.

Rosenfeld said there are several possible explanations, including that extended unemployment benefits, food stamps and other government-driven stimulus programs "have cushioned and delayed for many people the big blows that come from a recession."

Those benefits will run out eventually, he cautioned.

Another possible factor is that with more people home from work, it is harder for burglars to break into a home or apartment unnoticed by neighbors, he said.

Rosenfeld said another possibility is that because big cities tend to have a large impact on national crime figures, those cities' technology-driven, "smart policing" efforts are driving down national rates.

James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said he wasn't surprised by the overall downward trends.

"The popular wisdom is wrong," Fox said. "If a law-abiding citizen loses their job, they don't typically go on a crime spree."

He cautioned that "we shouldn't celebrate too loudly," arguing that it may be a statistical fluke, but one that could generate complacency on the part of public officials. "You don't solve the crime problem, you only control it," Fox said.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at

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