The first three months of 2008 saw city criminals trading guns for crow bars and lock picks, according to a first-quarter crime report released by the New Haven Police Department over the weekend.

At a press conference Friday morning, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz reported that as overall violent crime rates dropped slightly, first-quarter non-fatal shootings in the city decreased dramatically from the same time period last year. But both men also expressed concern about a low arrest rate for those shootings and a 31-percent spike in burglaries, which DeStefano said may be a product of the recent economic downturn.

After overall shootings increased 37 percent last year over the first quarter of 2006, Ortiz said he was proud to announce that the first quarter of 2008 had seen less gunfire on the streets of New Haven than over the same time last year. Twenty-four people were the victims of non-fatal shootings in the first quarter of 2008; at this time last year, 43 people had been non-fatally shot.

“I think there’s a general sense that violence is down,” DeStefano said.

Ortiz attributed the decrease in shootings to the department’s beefed-up partnership with federal authorities. The NHPD has focused on developing such a relationship since 2007 because the involvement of federal agents in a crime investigation allows the city to file a case in a federal, as opposed to state, court.

The city has taken this approach, Ortiz said, because federal sentences are generally longer and less flexible than state penalties. As a result, he added, convicted shooters are being kept off the streets.

Ortiz said Thursday that there were close to 25 federal prosecutions in 2007, compared to just three in 2006. On Friday, the department formalized its relationship with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in order to bolster its prosecution efforts, which will provide increased interaction with federal authorities.

Despite the department’s success with bringing cases to federal courts, police have had trouble so far this year arresting suspects, according to statistics presented at Friday’s press conference. In this year’s 24 shootings, just three suspects have been apprehended — a low success rate for the department, Ortiz said.

While acknowledging the problem, DeStefano said it is difficult to catch these shooters because witnesses of shootings often refuse to cooperate with police because they are involved with other crimes or shootings themselves. Ortiz, who said the department is not proud of the low figures, hypothesized that they may be due to the police’s difficulty in getting city residents to abandon the “stop-snitching” mentality among many city residents.

“This is a problem for us,” DeStefano said. “It’s a challenge for us that needs more attention, and one that needs more figuring out.”

In a continuation of a trend already evident in the last quarter of 2007, the number of burglaries rose by 31 percent over 2007 levels in the last three months.

Pointing to an 80-percent increase in mortgage foreclosures in the city over the last year, DeStefano said many New Haven residents are in tough financial straits right now.

DeStefano said he did not think homeowners were stealing to finance their houses, but acknowledged that the economic situation has created bigger incentives for criminals to commit property crimes.

“I think it’s a general reflection of the stresses people are feeling out there economically,” DeStefano said.

Businesses in Fair Haven were heavily targeted earlier this year by burglars who often struck in the midnight hour, Ortiz said. He said burglars entered these businesses, which often lacked security systems, through rooftop skylights and vents.

Across the city, garages and sheds have been common targets for thieves, Ortiz said. Although burglaries from sheds and garages usually begin occurring in the springtime, Ortiz said, burglars have been hitting New Haven residential areas earlier this year than ever before.

And because burglaries from sheds are often not reported until a day or more later, they are difficult to investigate, he added.

In contrast to the department’s trouble catching shooters, the NHPD has been successful at stopping burglars, Ortiz said. So far this year, 71 suspects — an “unprecedented” amount, Ortiz said — have been arrested in connection to the 408 burglaries in the city.

Forty of the 71 individuals arrested by the NHPD were charged with one county of burglary while 31 were charged with multiple counts. All 71 of them have been on probation or parole at some point in their lives, and all of them have extensive substance-abuse histories.

Most of the burglars were probably looking for money to finance their drug habits, Ortiz said.

He added that one of the burglary suspects arrested this year has even been arrested 14 times, which is not uncommon.

There have been 1,707 property crimes — including larceny and motor-vehicle theft — reported overall in the last three months.

There were 349 violent crimes, most of which were robberies and aggravated assaults, reported between January and March of this year, compared to 397 during the same time last year and 441 the year before.