By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Short on deputies, a Missouri sheriff's office has turned to electronic stand-ins to combat a surge in crime.
Officials in rural Greene County, in the southwest part of the state, are using flashing signs to alert residents to recent burglaries in their neighborhoods and to urge people to report suspicious activity.
"We want to let the bad guys know that neighbors will be watching out for neighbors," said Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott.
Population growth in Greene County, especially outside the county seat of Springfield, has contributed to increased crime and put pressure on the sheriff's ability to respond quickly to nonviolent crime reports, Arnott said.
Burglaries in the county increased 32 percent in the last quarter of 2011 compared to the same period a year earlier, Arnott said.
The three electronic signs, borrowed from the county highway department, have been up for a week and have already reduced calls for service. The flashing messages read: "Sheriff's Crime Alert. Burglaries/Thefts on rise. Report suspicious activity."
Arnott said he does not know of any other law enforcement agencies that have resorted to the signs.
Chantez Bailey, a spokeswoman for the National Crime Prevention Council, said she had not heard of other agencies using flashing electronic signs to reduce crime and police calls either. But if the approach works, the council supports it.
"Our organization is for anything that has to do with crime prevention and crime prevention awareness," Bailey said. Many law enforcement agencies are struggling with a shortage of officers, she said.
The signs have generated some complaints from real estate agents and some rural property owners in Greene County, who fear they may cause unnecessary alarm among would-be buyers.
Paula Sneed has been trying to sell her five-bedroom home just north of Springfield for more than a year in a slow market. She said a crime alert sign on the corner of her property makes a sale even tougher.
Arnott said he sympathizes with property but expects to use them again where needed.
"I just tell people that 'at this time you live in a high crime rate area,'" Arnott said. "It's the only way to let people know what's going on."
(Editing by James B. Kelleher and Daniel Trotta)