Calls to 911 for violent crimes reached a four-year high in 2012 in Beaufort County.
In all, 933 violent crimes -- which include homicides, rape, aggravated assault and robbery -- were reported to the county dispatch center, up from 841 the year before.
That's the most since 2008, when 960 calls reporting violent crimes were made.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner stopped short of calling the increase a "trend," citing the data's imprecision.
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Tanner's office and police departments in Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal recently released information about last year's most serious calls.
In 2012, deputies fielded 380,000 calls for service, Tanner said. With only 578 of those related to violent crimes, Tanner believes the county "is in pretty good shape." But he cautioned not to draw too many conclusions.
One reason is that the numbers are based on the first calls to the dispatch center, not what subsequent investigations turned up.
So a call from someone reporting an armed robbery might actually have been a purse-snatching, Tanner said. Conversely, a lesser offense could escalate after the first call is made, or deputies might discover the crime was more serious than reported.
That's why the violent-crime statistics have always been "somewhat of a roller coaster," Tanner said.
"It depends on the season, what our tourist numbers are," Tanner added, noting more visitors typically could mean more service calls.
Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy said the service calls can make the area's crime rate look better or worse than it is.
For example, neither of Beaufort's two murders last year was reported as a homicide to the dispatch center. And the one murder report Beaufort police received through the center turned out to be an assault that the victim survived.
Beaufort police also determined that of the 229 reported aggravated assaults last year, only 80 were valid, Clancy said.
For all agencies, reports of sexual assault are at a five-year high. Again, Tanner says, such figures can be misleading.
Of the 33 reports of sexual assault investigated by the Sheriff's Office in 2012, 15 resulted in arrests. Thirteen were dropped, either because the person claiming to be the victim did not want to press charges or there was no probable cause. Four other cases were closed for lack of evidence.
Only one of the 33 cases is still active -- the rape and kidnapping of a St. Helena Island woman in December.
For Shauw Chinn Capps, executive director of Hope Haven of the Lowcountry, the high number of reports could mean that more people are reporting sexual assault or that occurrences of sexual assault are increasing.
Hope Haven, a rape crisis center, is compiling its 2012 statistics, according to Capps, who said sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes.
"On my end, I'm glad that more people are reporting and potentially getting the services they need," Capps said. "It also tells me more prevention needs to happen."
Tanner hopes that the Sheriff's Office soon will have better data on 911 calls.
The county plans to buy new computer software that will produce statistics "that are truer from start to finish," Tanner said. For example, the equipment will allow deputies to change the category of crimes reported to dispatchers based on evidence they uncover.
Bids for the new public safety software are being evaluated, according to county spokeswoman Joy Nelson.
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.