This is one of the biggest problems local cops face. Owners hold the key to prevention

With the start of 2019, it was a time for reflection on crime in Manatee County in 2018.

In the first Manatee Tiger Bay Club meeting of 2019, Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan, Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer, Palmetto Police Captain Lorenzo Waiters and Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells addressed crime rates in their jurisdictions to club members and visitors.

After an 8.9 percent increase in reported crimes in the first half of 2018 compared to the first half of 2017, Bevan said they were already making changes.

“We’re looking at our crime rates every week,” Bevan said. “What we’re constantly doing is adjusting and readjusting.”

Wells echoed that by the time the report was issued in the latter half of 2018, his office was addressing the crime increase reflected in the report and were already seeing decreases in those numbers.

“We are constantly meeting on what’s going on with crime,” Wells said.

The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office saw an increase in index crimes of 9 percent when compared to the first half of 2017.

The biggest problems they saw were in vehicle burglaries, vehicle thefts and retail thefts. The 2018 Semi-Annual Uniform Crime Reports released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed increases in reported murders, robberies, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts in Manatee.

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Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells addresses the crowd at the Manatee Tiger Bay Club meeting Thursday at Pier 22 in Bradenton. Several law enforcement officials were panelists at the meeting which addressed crime rates in the county. Sara Nealeigh

‘Lock your cars’

One of the increases law enforcement departments saw was the rise in vehicle burglaries and vehicle thefts caused by vehicle burglaries. Wells said his deputies handled more than 900 reports of vehicle burglaries.

In some situations, Wells said, a group of young men in a vehicle will pull into a neighborhood and check door handles of parked vehicles. They don’t want the noise of smashing windows, so they target unlocked vehicles.

An easy solution, officials said, is to make sure residents lock their cars and take their belongings into their home.

“People will not lock their cars,” Waiters said.

Bevean said vehicle break-ins are the No. 1 most preventable crime in the county, prevented by simply locking the vehicle and taking any valuables inside.

On the island, Tokajer said his department has found success in decreasing burglaries by asking residents to tell officers when they’re on vacation, and officers will check on their homes.

But it’s not a program every department can conceivably run. With just 4,000 residents, it’s possible for HBPD, but Wells said it’s not for their office.

So how do departments prevent vehicle burglaries? Educate the public, Waiters said, especially on removing valuables from vehicles and making sure they are locked.

The sheriff’s office posts nightly reminders to lock vehicles and homes at 9 p.m. on the neighborhood social media website and app Nextdoor.

The crime rate for the first half of 2018 was up 14 percent for Bradenton, but that came after what Bevan called an incredibly low year in 2017.

However, Bevan said that the five-year average crime rate in the city of Bradenton is down 10 percent.

Waiters and Wells noted violent crime rate also went down in the latest report for their departments.

Tokajer said the crime rate for Holmes Beach decreased and most of those crimes were larcenies and burglaries.

One thing Bevan and Wells noted about the rise in crime rate was an accompanying rise in population in the city and the county.

Wells said the growth, especially in the north and east areas of the county, is one of his office’s biggest challenges.

“We can’t be proactive on crime if we can’t keep up with the growth,” Wells said.

He added manpower needs to be in place for those areas.

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Bevan said one of her biggest focuses this year will be on the well-being and mental health of her officers.

“I don’t know if the public realizes what we’re up against,” Bevan said.

She said she has 120 officers who come in to work and she needs all 120 to go home to their families every night.

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School safety

When asked what has been done to ensure children in schools are safe, law enforcement leaders recapped the steps taken since the Parkland massacre on Feb. 14, 2018, to secure schools in Manatee County, including the guardian program and adding school resource officers.

Working to increase security started with implementing those positions in elementary schools, which previously did not have them.

“We have a tremendous group of retired military and retired law enforcement personnel that decided that they were not done with helping others,” Wells said.

In Palmetto, Waiters said they added an additional school resource officer to the county school within and the charter schools added guardians.

Bevan said in addition to resource officers, some of her officers are being paid to work as mentors in the schools and serve as back-up for school resource officers and guardians.