How could that happen here?

A dismembered 10-year-old girl. A mutilated man with a log-splitter in his stomach. A drug-fueled home invasion that left three people dead.

These grisly, high-profile crimes produced state and national headlines, but they didn't occur in some unknown, far away town. They all happened in Catawba County.

The Catawba County Sheriff's Office responded to six murders in the first three months of 2011, which is double the number of murders and non-negligent manslaughter cases in 2010.

"How do you prevent it when a father shoots his wife and daughter?" asked Sheriff Coy Reid, referring to the Wheeler family double murder-suicide that occurred Feb. 7.

These crimes are happening just miles away from where county residents live, work and raise their families, which prompts many people to ask, "How could that happen here?"

The Strain Theory
It's no secret that the economic downturn affected the way people work, travel and spend their money.

But experts and law enforcement officials agree tough economic times play a role in the amount of crime in a community.

"Any time we have these economic problems, we're going to see more crime," said Shelley Shaffer, a doctoral candidate and criminal justice professor at Catawba Valley Community College. "(Criminals) have to steal, instead of it being an opportunity."

People can't afford to buy food, clothing or other necessities for their families, so they're forced to steal it, Shaffer said. Families can't pay for electricity, so they're forced it get the service fraudulently.

Conover and Claremont recently experienced a string of car break-ins, where thieves opened unlocked car doors and stole items stored inside the vehicles.

Conover Police Chief Steve Brewer said those crimes aren't typical for Conover and don't represent a trend toward increased criminal activity in city limits.

"That was a sporadic thing that was going on," he said.

Shaffer said the type of crime and the people who commit those crimes are vary widely, because unemployment or financial problems can affect anyone.

Unemployment didn't decrease in any North Carolina counties for January, according to recent statistics from the state Employment Security Commission. Catawba County's unemployment rate increased from 12.3 percent to 12.6 percent.

Population also increased in Catawba County from 2000 to 2010, which can also affect crime in a region, according to officials.

The 2010 Census showed the county grew to 154,358 people, which means the population increased about 9 percent in 10 years.

"I would expect more of an increase in crime with more people (in the county)," Reid said. "The more people you have, the more opportunities there are to have crime."

The Broken Window Theory
Where there's one broken window, there will be more.

That's the theory some law enforcement officers have when it comes to increasing crime in declining, dilapidated neighborhoods.

"If there's an area that goes unattended, people are going to go into that area to commit crime," Shaffer said. "... They think the area is unattended."

Census 2010 statistics showed Newton's vacant housing units increased 63 percent from 2000 to 2010. About 89 percent of the city's 5,105 housing units are filled, and 590, or about 11 percent, are vacant.

While that doesn't mean all of the city's vacant housing units are in disrepair, it does mean those empty properties could be targets for thieves.

Newton Police Chief Don Brown said the city's crime hasn't really been affected by an increasing unemployment rate. He said although the city experienced a slight increase in property crime, the amount of crime in the city has gradually decreased.

About 34 officers help keep Newton's streets safe, and for Shaffer, that policing is key for a safe environment. Shaffer advised law enforcement officers to step up community policing efforts and crime-reduction programs, where officers take active roles in the area's neighborhoods.

"That's the key to reducing crime," Shaffer said. "If nobody cares about the community, crime is going to get worse."

But Shaffer conceded adding more community policing efforts takes additional time and resources, something that is tight for most law enforcement agencies these days.

"We're seeing (the effects) from so many different variables," she said.

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