By Rich Pollack
The number of crimes in most towns and cities in coastal south Palm Beach County fell during the first six months of 2020, according to state statistics. Coronavirus restrictions early in the pandemic are getting some of the credit.
In Highland Beach, the number of reported crimes dropped by more than 70%, from 28 to eight, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Uniform Crime Report. In Manalapan the number dropped from 12 to four and in South Palm Beach from six to two, similar to Highland Beach in terms of percentage.
Ocean Ridge, which includes crimes in Briny Breezes, had one fewer reported crime (11) in the first six months of 2020 than it did during the same period the previous year. Of the smaller area coastal towns, only Gulf Stream reported an increase — with the number of crimes doubling due to a rash of auto thefts.
Still, the number of overall crimes in the coastal communities remained low, with Gulf Stream’s 14 total ranking as the most in any one small town.
Of the larger cities only Delray Beach experienced an increase — a small one at that — while Boca Raton, Boynton Beach and Lantana all witnessed declines.
The drop in crime locally during the first six months of 2020 mirrors statewide numbers that show close to a 12% drop, and county numbers that show a drop of close to 5%.
Although there is no way to know for certain, police chiefs in Highland Beach and Ocean Ridge say that restrictions early in the pandemic — which shuttered businesses, parks and beaches — may have kept would-be criminals away.
“During a short period of time when more severe restrictions were in place, the number of certain types of crimes went down a little,” said Ocean Ridge Police Chief Hal Hutchins.
Those types — burglaries and thefts from unlocked vehicles, which Hutchins calls opportunity crimes — were down as more people stayed home during spring lockdowns and fewer people visited the area.
“The fact that we had less people and less traffic, that did help us to a limited extent,” he said.
Highland Beach Police Chief Craig Hartmann said that more people at home translates to better vigilance. “There are more eyes and ears out there when people aren’t traveling,” he said.
For Highland Beach, as well as other towns, a focus on prevention — with the help of enhanced technology — could also have been a factor driving the drop in crime during the first six months of 2020.
Manalapan Police Chief Carmen Mattox says that the addition of four police officers, bringing the department’s staff to 12, has played a role in keeping crime down.
“Increasing our visibility, improving our technology and improving communication has been a big help,” he said.
One tool in the technology kit, the installation of license plate readers throughout the area, has played a role in reducing crime, according to Hartmann, especially as their usage continues to increase.
“License plate readers are so important because they give you a level of alert,” he said.
He pointed to a recent incident in which a license plate reader picked up a suspected stolen car passing through Highland Beach. When officers located the vehicle, they discovered that the two people inside were wanted in connection with armed robberies.
Hartmann had a feeling the suspects — who had a loaded gun in the car — planned more crimes, but said there’s no way to know for sure.
How much crime was deterred by license plate readers, the increased awareness and vigilance of residents, and actions by law enforcement are not reflected in the statewide crime report, he pointed out.
“There’s no statistic for what was prevented,” Hartmann said.