By Rich Pollack
Small coastal communities in South Palm Beach County continued to have few serious crimes in 2016, with most experiencing crime decreases last year, according to statistics released last month by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
At the same time, the larger cities in south Palm Beach County all experienced more crime in 2016, as did Ocean Ridge. The increases were driven in large part by a growing number of thefts from unlocked vehicles.
Along the coast, South Palm Beach and its neighbor to the south, Manalapan, experienced large percentage drops in crime, with South Palm Beach dropping close to 43 percent and Manalapan dropping by more than 40 percent. Those percentages, however, can be misleading because of the small number of crimes.
In South Palm Beach, the number of crimes dropped from 14 to 8. In Manalapan, the number of crimes dropped from 27 to 16. Highland Beach, which like South Palm Beach is almost entirely residential, experienced four fewer crimes than it did in 2015, while Gulf Stream had 10 reported crimes, the same as 2015.
Ocean Ridge was the exception among the small towns, with 80 crimes, nine more than in 2015. Although the number of major crimes in the town dropped in every other category — including burglaries, which dropped by 58 percent — the number of larcenies jumped 60 percent from 40 in 2015 to 64 in 2016. “We believe that about 85 percent of the burglaries to vehicles could have been prevented by people simply locking their car doors and removing their valuables,” said Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins. “If we remove the opportunity, we can displace the criminals.”
Hutchins said geography and the physical layout of Ocean Ridge may partially explain why the town experienced an increase in thefts while neighboring communities did not. He pointed out easy access to Ocean Ridge from Interstate 95 and explained that there are more public-access areas, including parks, than in other communities.
In some other coastal communities, a drop in the number of larcenies helped drive an overall decrease in the number of crimes.
In Highland Beach, which had a 10 percent decrease in overall crime last year, 22 of the 36 reported overall crimes were larcenies. In 2015, there were 32 reported larcenies.
Police Chief Craig Hartmann gives some credit for the drop to residents, who he says are doing a better job of locking their cars and alerting police to any suspicious activity.
“We’ve been working with the community to make sure they understand this is an epidemic,” Hartmann said. “We’re putting information out to let residents know how they can avoid becoming a victim.”
Highland Beach police officers just recently began making presentations at homeowners associations and condo association meetings and began distributing door hangers that say “Always Lock Your Car.”
Larger cities have also been spreading the word, but thieves have still been able to find many unlocked cars with valuable items inside.
In Delray Beach, for example, 2,218 larcenies were reported in 2016, 288 more than in 2015. In Boynton Beach, there were 310 more larcenies in 2016 than in the previous year, and in Boca Raton the number of larcenies increased by 210 in the same time period.
“Vehicle burglaries account for a large percentage of our crime statistics,” said Dani Moschella, the Delray Beach Police Department’s public information manager. “Most of those crimes were to unlocked cars, and often the victims’ property was clearly visible inside the vehicles. Bags, sunglasses, cash, sometimes even purses, were all left in plain view.”
In Palm Beach County, the number of overall crimes increased by 2.2 percent, with larcenies and other property crimes largely driving the increase. Violent crimes against people decreased, with the county experiencing 21 fewer homicides, nine fewer rapes and close to 90 fewer robberies, according to FDLE Uniform Crime Report statistics.