The number of reported crimes in unincorporated Jefferson Parish fell by 10 percent last year, reaching a record low since the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office began keeping such data in 1974, officials announced this week.

It's "only the second time a double-digit decrease has been reported in a year for which data is completely available," said Lt. Jason Rivarde, a JPSO spokesman.

Last year, deputies responded to 11,471 "index" crimes tracked by police departments around the country and the FBI. These crimes fall into seven categories: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, theft and auto theft.

The figures do not include crimes that took place in municipalities within the parish that have their own police departments, such as Kenner and Gretna.

Overall, the Sheriff's Office reported dips in every category except for rape, which shot up last year by more than 39 percent.

There were 92 reported rapes in 2017, compared with 66 the year before, according to JPSO statistics that are reported annually to the FBI.

Sheriff Joe Lopinto said the increase in reported rapes should be taken as "a good thing," however, and not necessarily a sign that the crime has become more common.

He attributed the increase to the #MeToo campaign, a movement with a viral hashtag that has in the past year persuaded thousands of women to come forward with stories about sexual assault or harassment in the workplace and beyond.

"Women are feeling more empowered and reporting it at a higher number," Lopinto said. "We want them to come forward with situations and crimes that occur."

Lopinto also said the relatively small number of sex crimes tends to amplify the effect of increases or decreases reported from year to year.

The same is true of murders, where the JPSO reported a drop of nearly 30 percent — the biggest decrease seen in any crime category. Detectives investigated 31 homicides last year, compared with 44 in 2016. In 2015, the unincorporated part of the parish saw 27 murders.

The lowest number of murders reported in Jefferson Parish was 13, in 1988. That year, however, there were 28,312 index crimes reported, meaning the statistic was not tied to a general reduction in crime.

"I look at trends in overall crime, not in individual murder rates," Lopinto said.

Theft is by far the most common of the seven index crimes tracked by the FBI, accounting for nearly 70 percent of all the crimes. As such, fluctuations in thefts tend to have the biggest effect on how much crime is reported.

Thefts fell by more than 1,000 last year, a drop of 12 percent. Burglaries, another relatively common offense, were down 10 percent. 

The announcement of the new figures comes amid a heated race between Lopinto and former Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Fortunato in advance of the March 24 election for sheriff.

Lopinto took over as sheriff last year when Newell Normand resigned to become a radio talk show host and tapped Lopinto to replace him on an interim basis.

Fortunato retired as department spokesman shortly afterward, after 46 years with the agency, and announced a bid for the top job.

During a political forum last month, both candidates acknowledged the drop in reported crimes. But Fortunato said that even with the encouraging numbers, he believes the agency must expand its street crimes unit. “We used to have 45 officers,” he said.

Lopinto countered that the street crimes unit now has 15 members and another 13 are in Project Star, "which does about the same job."

In an interview Tuesday, Lopinto said a year-by-year analysis shows that the falling crime numbers are part of a bigger trend, rather than the work of any one year or even one sheriff.

In 1974, the first year the JPSO started recording calls for service, there were 15,791 reported crimes, data show. That year, there were 36 murders and 95 rapes, numbers comparable to 2017.

By 2004, the year before Hurricane Katrina, the number of crimes had grown to nearly twice the total reported in 2017, with 20,119 offenses. That number included 43 murders and 160 rapes.

The number of reported crimes has steadily dropped since 2013, when the Sheriff's Office responded to 14,354 reported crimes. By 2016, that number had dropped to 12,807.

The crime rate in 2017 was just over a third of that reported in 1991, when the parish saw a high of 31,880 crimes.

"There were 20,000 less crimes than in 1991," Lopinto said. "Now, you don’t have the territorial battles (between gangs) you had in the '90s, but that's a significant decrease over the years, and that's good news."

He attributed the trend to the office's "intelligence-based policing model" that uses data to target habitual offenders.

"One year doesn’t make us safe," Lopinto said. "We’re looking at multiple years, and I'm very encouraged by the trends that have been occurring."

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.