The growing drug problem in Chautauqua County has fueled an equally alarming rate of property crimes.
This phenomenon, part of the so-called "vicious cycle" of drugs, as described by Captain Robert F. Samuelson, division commander of the Jamestown Police Department, finds users repeatedly stealing and selling items for drug money.
"I would say 90 percent of our crimes are drug-related," Samuelson said. "They are the nexus to most of our problems."
John Bentley, chief of police at the Lakewood-Busti Police Department, agreed, describing drugs-namely heroin-as the root cause of property crimes in his jurisdiction, an area that has approximately 385 retail outlets including the Chautauqua Mall and Wal-Mart Supercenter.
"We find that almost all of our (property crimes) are drug-driven crimes," Bentley said. "People get arrested frequently ... but since court (sentences) don't really do much to them, they're right back out there again."
Property crimes are typically broken down into three categories: larcenies, burglaries and robberies. While larcenies simply refer to the unlawful taking of property without consent like shoplifting or grand theft auto, burglaries include the act of a "break-in" and robberies the act of confronting a victim, often through violent means.
According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the number of property crimes in Chautauqua County is not abnormally high compared to other counties in the state; in fact, it has stayed remarkably steady over the past six years, averaging at 3,346 incidents.
This notwithstanding, the growing heroin epidemic, exacerbated by poverty, unemployment and a sluggish economy, has fueled speculation over a possible surge in property crimes in the future.
"People have to be vigilant," Bentley said. "If the perpetrators do it in one place, they'll do it in another. The more they don't get arrested, the more brazen they'll become."
Retail stores should know.
Over the holiday season, The Post-Journal reported on a number of shoplifting incidents in the local area, including the theft of four computer tablets from the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Lakewood and approximately $2,300 worth of merchandise from Carlson's Jewelry in Jamestown.
"(Thieves are) looking at electronics, televisions, laptop computers, iPads, iPhones, XBoxes, Playstations ... they can all be traded or sold for drugs," Samuelson said.
Incidents like these no doubt make loss prevention personnel an essential asset to law enforcement agencies.
"(Loss prevention) are as effective as they can be," Bentley said. "It's unfortunate that there are several stores in our area (that don't have loss prevention). If they had more manpower, we would certainly be much busier; the court would be much busier. They're in the same boat we're in; you can only afford so much security."
Bentley further described how shoplifting can even result in higher prices for consumers.
"Everything that's (stolen) out the door ... there's a price to be paid," Bentley said. "(Stores) have to make up for their losses so everybody in the community is having to pay more."
A financial burden for sure, but shoplifting is perhaps less alarming than burglaries and home invasions, which have the potential for psychological ramifications.
"(Burglaries) can be very unnerving," said Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace. "They can have a lifelong effect on the victim and they may never feel comfortable in their home again."
Gerace, though insisting that police agencies take burglaries seriously, still encourages residents to look out for one another and invest in affordable alarm systems if necessary.
"(For some burglars) this is their profession," Gerace said. "They're not employable, they don't want to be employable ... it's what they do for a living and they have specific targets."
So what's the solution?
"The biggest thing law enforcement can do is educate the people," Samuelson said. "Lock your car doors and lock your house doors."
"People watching out for others is the most effective thing," Gerace said.
"There's no quick fix to this," said Bentley, who pointed to drugs again. "Let's solve the heroin problem."