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Beachside still a haven from serious crime
BY IAN M. LOVE - MANAGING EDITOR (Week of January 15, 2009)

Notwithstanding the highly publicized attempted daytime robberies on Christmas Eve on Sandfly Lane, the Vero Beach barrier island remains a relative haven from criminal activity despite the barrage of news of hard economic times at hand.

“Lots of people keep asking, ‘Has crime gone up, has crime skyrocketed?’” says Vero Beach Police Department spokesman John Morrison. “And I tell them the answer is ‘No.’ But people are worried about it, they are worried that people, who might not normally commit crimes are now committing them because of the economy.”

Indeed, a year-to-year comparison of statistics provided by the Vero Beach Police Department, the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office and the town of Orchid, show that crime – low compared to the county as a whole to start with — might be up slightly in some parts of the barrier island but has actually gone down in others.

Reported residential burglaries on the island within the Vero Beach city limits were down significantly from 47 in 2007 to just 14 in 2008. Of those reports, only five turned out to be actual burglaries and all five of those crimes resulted in arrests.

Burglaries of beachside businesses within the city limits were also slightly down from 16 in 2007 to 14 last year. One area where there was a marked increase in crime was automobile burglaries, which jumped from 18 in 2007 to 57 last year.

However, of those 57 burglaries, just one involved the break-in of a locked vehicle; 51 were what police call “crimes of opportunity,” where items were taken from an unlocked vehicle.

“I say it a hundred times a day,” said officer Morrison, who oversees two neighborhood watch programs on the island. “It goes for your home also, even if going out to dinner or going out to the Publix, make sure your doors are locked.”

Morrison credits the residents of the barrier island with keeping crime in check. Gated communities are certainly a help, but neighbors looking out for neighbors is the best crime deterrent going. It certainly worked in the case of the Christmas Eve attempted burglary. Police received no fewer than four phone calls from alert citizens helping them to nab Onike James, 22, and Michael Black, 17, both of Sunrise.

After a resident in the 900 block of Sandfly Lane came home, he called police to tell them he found a white van parked in the driveway, and upon inspection the back doors open and someone running out the house. Two minutes after that call, police received two more phone calls from alert neighbors and captured James in the Indian River Lagoon near the 1800 block of A1A within the hour.

About three hours later, police received a fourth call about a suspicious man near Flamevine Lane and Cardinal Drive, which led to the arrest of Black. James was charged with burglary of a dwelling and resisting an officer without violence, while Black was charged with three counts of burglary of a dwelling, resisting arrest without violence, possession of a burglary tool and giving a false name to a police officer.

And Morrison’s crime watch groups helped with more than solving the crime; they also helped to retrieve some of the stolen property. One of the burglars had a black backpack, which was not in his possession at the time of his arrest.

Morrison sent out an e-mail alert to 100 residences that had joined the neighborhood watch programs telling them about the backpack and asking them to alert landscapers and other workers of its contents.

“We figured someone hid it and I put an alert out to our neighborhood watch groups, to be on look out,” he said. “And sure enough, someone found it, called us and in the end all the stolen property was returned.”

In the unincorporated parts of the barrier island – north and south of the city limits – which are patrolled by the Indian County Sheriff’s Department, there was a slight increase in burglaries last year compared to 2007.

Auto burglaries increased from 69 in 2007 to 80 in 2008, and home burglaries jumped from 11 in 2007 to 18 in 2008. Two commercial burglaries were reported in 2008 compared to none in 2007. While these numbers are relatively low, any increase in crime captures the attention of sheriff’s department analysts.

“It is something to worry about any time we see an increase (in crimes),” said sheriff’s department spokesman Jeff Luther. “In those cases we adjust to an increase, we have a selective enforcement team and once we have identified a problem those guys will come in and concentrate on an area, staking out like you see on TV.”

Again, the numbers need to be put into context. While 80 auto burglaries on the island last year may sound like a lot, Luther points to one community on the other side of the lagoon that last year had 200 vehicle break-ins in a three-night period.

In the town of Orchid, police calls were actually down in 2008.

“We really just don’t have a lot of calls,” said Town Manager Deb Branwell. “In 2007, we averaged about 30 calls a month – and most of those were alarm calls. Last November we had just 10 calls and in December we only had 14.

“It is very safe here, we are very blessed to live where we live.”

For more information on joining or forming a neighborhood watch group, call 978-4649 (city) or 978-1817 (county).