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Cops concerned about holiday crime wave

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When hard times descend upon us, people commit more crimes.

Angry, desperate, frustrated people, out of work or underemployed, have turned to committing car break-ins, burglaries, thefts and other petty crimes that add up to one sad societal picture, cops say.

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People are making a living through any means possible, not always legal.

But law enforcement agents say they're also seeing more domestic disturbances lately and that concerns them as much as a rash of break-ins.

Earlier this week, a crime wave hit Akeley. It would be laughable by big city standards, but not to those victimized in a small town where everybody knows everybody. Several cars were broken into in what cops call "smash and grabs."

Thieves smash out a windshield or side window and grab whatever they can take: cash, stereo systems, sporting goods, weapons, whatever's in the vehicle.

That spree followed two business break-ins in the same town earlier this fall.

"I've been here three years and this is the first for me," said Akeley Police Chief Eric Klein. "To me I just think it's the way of the times. People are trying to steal whatever they can get their hands on."

Klein said he's particularly concerned about construction materials thefts, which have been occurring with too much regularity lately.

"We've had a lot of recycling type things that were stolen," he said. Thieves sell copper wire to recycling centers, at garage sales and flea markets.

It's a reflection of hard times, Klein maintains. "It really is," he said. "I know Nevis has gotten quite a bit of that, too. I'm sure the county has problems, too, but that's the way it is."

Klein said he was flabbergasted recently when thieves broke into a burned-out home to plunder the copper pipes and wiring from it.

"I didn't think it would get that bad," he said. "I'm a firm believer it's the times we're living in."

Hubbard County Chief Deputy Frank Homer is careful to differentiate between thieves and desperate people. Many of the county's shift workers that have been laid off don't turn to crime, he said. They go out and find a second job or cut back on expenses.

"We thought we would see an upsurge (in crime) when the economy was first starting to go south on us back in the spring and summer, when gas prices went up," he said.

But that anticipated crime wave, which would have included drive-offs from filling stations, never occurred.

Now, however, Homer is seeing more problems.

"Times get real tough in the winter in northern Minnesota when you're talking about heating your house, putting food on the table and that's for the average citizen," he said.

"But then you have people that maybe have an alcohol or drug problem that they need to support and don't have the revenue to support their bad habits," he added. Those are the people behind many of the thefts, burglaries and property crimes.

"I hate to say it but we may be on the upswing now," Homer said.

"I think there can be a number of things that really happen," said Dr. Joel Kirchner, a clinical psychologist with Innovis Health - Department of Behavioral Medicine in Park Rapids.

"People do, with hard times, become more desperate and with that desperation they very well may engage in behaviors they historically would not do."

But Kirchner said "it depends on the nature of the offense.

"It can be an opportunity that presents itself and a person then reacts impulsively and that impulsivity could be driven by despair and feeling desperate."

He said anger could also be driving some crime impulses. "With that sense of desperation you're going to see a broad spectrum of emotions. People are going to be more worried, more anxious, more depressed."

Kirchner said in hard times people are more irritable and angry.

And that's what Homer is seeing in the working poor.

"It is frustrating for law enforcement but for the most part I'd have to say when you're talking about shift workers and people who had jobs that have been laid off, those generally are the good people in our society," Homer said. "Although there is a lot of frustration by those people and those families, generally they're looking for alternate ways other than crime to generate revenue," he said.

"If anything there's an increase in calls relating to these families... there's stress and frustration within the family and there'll be an argument and we'll be called to the house," Homer said. "It's just aggravation."

"It's during these kinds of times that you run the risk of increased child abuse," Kirchner said. "Parents are emotionally threadbare and a little bit more reactive. Homes are stressed and, of course, kids pick up on that stress and they can be difficult to manage. It can be a very vicious cycle that feeds on itself."

Klein said the public can help stem the tide of those opportunistic, impulsive crimes.

"Help me out a little bit and use some common sense," he said. "Lock your doors. It's a matter of people helping the police out. I'm a firm believer of neighbors helping neighbors, keeping an eye on things."

And in tough times, neighbors can reach out to each other just for moral support, too, authorities say.

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