An unexpected boon - crime is down

The front room of the Sderot police station echoes and the station's emergency hot line operator sits at the front desk, holding conversations with police officers walking back and forth. But in the hours between Kassam strikes, what are missing in the Negev town's police station are clients. Sderot, after six years of Kassam barrages, has reaped an unexpected consequence of the external pressure - lower-than-usual crime and traffic collision rates. A senior officer in the Lachish Subdistrict, of which Sderot is a part, told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday that street and property crime, as well as vehicle collisions, were all lower in Sderot than in other cities of comparable size and socio-economic status. She attributed the phenomenon to a confluence of three factors: "First of all, there are fewer people in the streets, which lowers the opportunity for friction. Second, the police are frequently reinforced by units from outside the city, leading to a more visible police presence. Third, the external threat, the sense of unity, has led to a reduction in the crime rate." Even the local organized crime, she said, had leveled off. "Just like after [Yitzhak] Rabin's murder, it seems that even the local criminals - both Jewish and Beduin - have understood that when people are facing such desperate circumstances, it's not the time for crime," she explained. "There is a reduction in the trend of vehicle collisions because people are afraid to leave their houses, decreasing the traffic volume in the city's streets," said the local head of traffic police, Ch.-Insp. Moshe Freum. But, Freum said, the collisions that do occur are frequently tied to the aerial assaults. "When drivers hear the warning siren, they panic, lose control and sometimes hit things," Freum explained. "People hurry to get out of their cars and find cover. Sometimes they are so anxious to get children out of their car seats that they get tangled up with the seatbelts." Local police said that looting, which was a serious concern in the North during this summer's war, was a non-issue in Sderot. Only between 10-12 percent of the city's population has fled, because unlike in the North, the barrages have been part of the way of life in Sderot for years now. Residents' tendency to hole up inside their homes acts as a deterrent to would-be thieves. Sderot's acting police chief, Ch.-Insp. Uri Sharon, said the reduction in crime was part of a general trend throughout the Southern District, but noted that special factors were at work in the city. Once, he said, Sderot was a local entertainment spot, and featured a handful of small bars and nightclubs. Now, due to the association of Sderot with death falling from the sky, the party scene has quieted - and with it, alcohol-related crime had decreased. Sharon was at pains to emphasize that despite the security situation, police were active in fighting crime as well as responding to Kassam strikes. "The treatment of Kassam strikes should not come at the expense of reducing crime," said the former Ashdod deputy chief, adding that while "Kassams aren't something that we as local police can fight," the police could fight crime. But crime or no crime, life as a Sderot police officer is far from simple. "There are guys here whose entire families live in the city. They are under immense pressure, and I as their commander must be aware of their emotional state. The years when we used to see someone in emotional distress and tell him 'not to act like a girl' have passed - now, I encourage them to talk with me, talk amongst themselves and talk to professional counselors that the police provide," Sharon said. According to Sharon, police officers are frequently rotated on leave and vacation, and reinforcements from neighboring cities are brought in to lend a hand. "Police officers have an incredible stress level here, because we can't take cover. We continue working outside, because that is our job," Freum added.