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Monday, May 20, 2024

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County Crimes Soar in Summer

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By Vince Conti

At the height of summer, Cape May County has the highest crime rate in the state, as reported by New Jersey State Police. The rate – 1,263 offenses per 100,000 of the population – is artificially high, because the calculation is based on the county’s permanent population of fewer than 100,000 residents.
The calculated rate doesn’t mean a crime wave has struck the county, but it does show that the influx of tens of thousands of visitors brings with it an increase in criminal offenses, especially larceny, better known in New Jersey as theft of moveable property. The offense is termed robbery when force is used to commit the crime.
In fact, if one were to control for the estimated population influx during the summer, the rate of crime per 100,000 of the population drops. The official numbers do not take the summer population level into account.
Statistically, those in the county in January and July are more likely to be a victim of crime in January.
State Police released Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data on the first three quarters of 2019, and theft is by far the most common offense. In the first quarter of the year – the first three months of the year – Cape May County experienced 125 recorded thefts out of a total of 191 offenses. 
By the second quarter, the number jumps to 401 out of a total of 515.
During the third quarter, which includes peak tourism months, the number of thefts rises to 745 out of 916 total UCR offenses. 
At that point, when the population in the county is as much as eight times its year-round levels, crime almost quadruples from the level it was in the slow winter months.
Violent crime; however, remains a relatively small part of the picture. Nationally and statewide, the trend of the last several years has been a downturn in violent crime. The UCR counts murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault in the category of violent crime.
Data Limitations
The data does not include arrests for possession or sale of drugs. Were these offenses added in the county’s offenses, totals would rise dramatically. Data available from State Police for 2016 shows 1,005 arrests for possession of controlled substances and 174 for sale or manufacture of said substances.
The data by quarter for 2019 also does not include offenses handled by the State Police in the municipalities of Upper Township, Dennis Township and Woodbine. The information reported above comes from municipal and county law enforcement agencies. These include the Cape May County Sheriff’s Office, the Cape May County Prosecutor and the 11 municipal police departments in the county.
Pattern of Crime
The pattern of crime is unlikely to be different if data from municipalities patrolled by State Police, in the north end of the county, was included. Complete year data for those municipalities for 2017 shows the same high prevalence of larceny, as the offense that accounts for two out of three reordered crimes.
A state calculated crime index of violent crime per 1,000 of the permanent population shows serious crimes of violence have declined in the decade since 2010. Throughout that period, Cape May County has had a violent crime index below the state average, and well below neighboring Cumberland and Atlantic counties.
It is in non-violent crimes against property that the county ranks higher than state averages and higher than neighboring counties in South Jersey. In the partial 2019 quarterly statistics, larceny is recorded 75% or more of the time when crimes against property are listed.
In other words, in terms of the crimes tracked in the UCR system, the offense one is most likely to experience in Cape May County is theft. That offense also ebbs and flows with the rhythm of the seasonal economy, rising 400% between the first and third quarters of the year.
Drug Offenses
Cape May County has a drug problem. The annual Department of Human Services Substance Abuse Overview Report provides some insight for those involved in substance abuse treatment admissions. The report is, perhaps, the best available proxy for looking at the nature of the county’s issues with substance abuse.
The report for the complete 2018 year notes 2,394 admissions covering 1,363 unique individuals. It’s the pattern in the admissions that is troubling.
Two out of three individuals are male. Two out of three are ages 25 to 44. Over 80% of the admissions are white, single or divorced and either without insurance or on Medicaid. 
Only 56% have any employment, full or part-time. In a state where the high school graduation rate has topped 90%, only 59% of the substance abuse admissions have graduated high school.
Legal issues confront most of those admitted for treatment. One in four is reported as having no legal issues, 27% are involved in drug court, 23% are on probation or parole and 13% have lost their right to drive due to driving under the influence offenses.
Added to the picture is the statistic that only 52% completed a treatment plan before discharge.
The most recent State Police State and County Arrest Summaries for drug offenses are for 2015 and 2016. Things can change in the intervening four years, but the reports add some context to the UCR numbers discussed above.
In 2015, arrests for possession of a controlled substance in the county are reported at 733. For 2016, that number soared to 1,005, a 37% increase in one year. 
Only three counties in the state had a higher percentage increase: Hunterdon, Gloucester and Burlington. Middlesex matched Cape May County’s increase that year.
Reports on arrests for sale or manufacture of a controlled substance for 2015 in Cape May County are reported at 147. That grew to 174 in 2016, an increase of 18%. That percentage put the county somewhere in the middle of the 21 counties in the state.
The data suggests that with the exception of larceny, the most common crime in the county is the possession of a controlled substance. Using the full State Police report for 2016, for which drug arrest data is available, that was true.
What was not available for the drug data was a quarterly breakdown, but it would be surprising if the pattern did not also show a seasonal surge in drug crime also associated with the months of highest population density in the county.
It is no surprise: more people, more crime. Even if the rate of crime goes down with the large influx of people, the absolute numbers soar and that presents the challenge for local law enforcement.
It is, perhaps, just an unwanted side effect of a large and growing tourist economy.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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