Crashing stock markets, collapsing financial institutions, $700 billion government bailouts and high gas prices have gripped the country with panic.

Last week, Wall Street investors lost $2.4 trillion in one of its worst weeks in history. More than 2 million more people are unemployed versus this time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In September alone, 159,000 Americans lost their jobs.

Now, some law enforcement officers are concerned the outright economic meltdown could endanger citizens’ safety just as much as their bank accounts. Desperation, they say, sometimes leads people to take drastic and illegal measures.

“You definitely see a rise (in crime) when people need money,” Beckley police Detective Lt. Gant Montgomery said. “I hope the economy recovers, and until then, we will continue to do our jobs. I hope it’s not an outright downward spiral because you’ll see crime increase all across the board.”

People will sometimes resort to selling drugs when they are desperate enough, Montgomery said. Likewise, unemployment leads to “hopelessness” and affected people often turn to drug use. The combination of both more drug dealers and more drug users is dangerous because so many other crimes, like theft, are linked to the drug trade.

The temptation may be high for people who manage to keep their jobs. Locally, a large portion of the job growth has been in the service industry where most jobs do not pay well. Montgomery said he has often arrested people for drug dealing who tell him their incomes just aren’t enough.

“It’s quick money, it’s easy money and they’re willing to take the risk,” he said. “The jobs they’re qualified for don’t pay.

“They’ve raised the minimum wage,” he said. “But when you talk about the economy, people can’t survive on low-paying jobs. That’s a fact. It’s all boiled down to their personal decisions. If they don’t have the education, they struggle for survival.

“It’s a sad state of affairs and people will ultimately pay the consequences. I wish the service industries would pay more, but that’s a fact of life with the economy the way it is.”

Because the country has not faced such dire economic concerns in anyone’s recent memory, there may be no real gauge to determine how bad the situation could get, Montgomery said. He noted the constant metal thefts in which people have literally risked — and lost — their lives trying to cut utility cables.

“Obviously, people are desperate. I think crime will not decrease,” he said.

Raleigh County Sheriff Danny Moore agreed desperate times could cause people to resort to desperate measures.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “Let’s subtract alcohol and drugs. You lose your job and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re young and you have a family and bills to pay.

“Some do turn to crime. What do you do when you can’t eat or pay the bills?”

Theft is probably the most frequent crime directly tied to poor economic times, Moore said. However, he does not blame the economy for the rash of metal thefts — yet. Those arrested were allegedly involved in such crime long before Wall Street’s drama spilled onto Main Street because metal prices sharply rose before the economic downturn.

But if conditions get worse, more people could be tempted by the money they would receive at a scrap yard, Moore said.

“It’s entirely possible. It’s easy to do.”

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However, the economic cloud here does not seem to be as dark as in other states, and that means serious crime increases could be held at bay.

Beckley police Capt. Jeff Shumate said the unemployment rate is probably the biggest determining factor when the economy is related to crime rates. According to Workforce West Virginia, the state’s unemployment rate actually dropped to 3.9 percent in August. The national unemployment rate is 6.1 percent.

“Due to the increase in the mining industry, I don’t think the situation is as severe here as it is in other areas of the United States,” Shumate said. “The mining economy is doing well and providing a fair amount of jobs.”

When police interview people charged with crimes, Shumate said, the suspects do often say financial problems were what pushed them to commit crimes. That may be true of some people, but the majority would use another excuse if the economy were in better shape.

“Once law enforcement does interviews, we find suspects’ statements are often self-serving,” he said.

The key to citizens protecting themselves from crime — no matter the economic conditions — is prevention, Shumate said. For example, gas drive-offs decreased even as prices shot to more than $4 per gallon. He attributed that to almost all service stations requiring customers to pre-pay.

“That doesn’t assure you that you won’t be a victim, but it lessens the chances,” he said.

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