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Violent crime up in some small cities

While larger areas stanch mayhem, nearby localities see increase

Email|Print| Text size + By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / November 5, 2007

As rates of violent crime fall in Boston, New Bedford, and Brockton, smaller cities and towns such as Arlington and Haverhill have seen aggravated assaults and robberies increase, according to figures compiled by police chiefs in 25 of the state's largest law enforcement agencies.

While the reasons for the fluctuations are not clear, some police chiefs and analysts suggest that criminals and gang members are migrating to smaller, quieter municipalities on the outskirts as bigger cities effectively clamp down on violent felons. Others suggest that heroin use is fueling more robberies by addicts trying to feed their habit.

"We can't stick our heads in the sand and not recognize that there has been an increase in crime," said Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan.

Ryan said that Arlington's proximity to Somerville and Cambridge has contributed to making it the "recipient of some displaced crime from our more urban neighbors."

The figures, which compared crime for the first six months of 2006 and 2007, also showed positive changes, analysts say. Overall, the total number of violent crimes for all 25 localities fell by 5 percent, revealing a promising trend for a state that has generally struggled with spikes in homicides and shootings since 1999. The number of shootings and fatal shootings in the state had nearly doubled, from 1,302 in 1999 to 2,250 in 2005, according to federal data.

Still, many chiefs said they are troubled by the trend.

"Even though there are some reductions and some increases, overall we're seeing a level of violence that urban areas are experiencing that is beyond what local communities can address," said Gary Gemme, the police chief in Worcester, one of the few cities with a population over 50,000 that saw an increase in violent crime. "There are a lot of challenges that are taking place in urban areas, and we need state resources."

The chiefs, who are part of a 30-member organization called the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs, met in September with Governor Deval Patrick to discuss the trends and crime prevention strategies and to request more money to keep the figures down.

Many chiefs say the rise in violent crime in some cities highlights continuing fallout from deep cuts in federal funding for local police enacted by the Bush administration.

Kevin Burke, the state's secretary of public safety, who was at the meeting with Patrick, said the chiefs' presentation helped the governor understand where to direct funding.

"We have limited amounts of funds, and what funds we have we should spend smartly," he said. "We can't pour millions more into law enforcement."

Burke said Patrick has directed funding to the cities and towns with the worst crime problems and plans to propose using $21 million next year from an existing community policing program to assist localities that have experienced spikes in crime.

The chiefs' presentation "confirmed that we're spending money right, and when we do spend money we have to spend it on a data-driven basis," he said.

The figures show that overall crime, which includes burglaries and motor vehicle thefts, is up 5 percent in the cities with populations under 50,000. But violent crime, which includes murders, rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies, and aggravated assaults with firearms, is up 2 percent in smaller cities and towns.

"There is an uptrend in some of the smaller towns with robberies because of drugs, heroin," said Kenneth Lavallee, Lowell's police superintendent. "People who are drug-addicted are out there robbing banks and robbing convenience stores and other easy targets."

The uptick also could be a result of better reporting by police and the public, some analysts said.

"The increases in crime could be that people have confidence in the police and they're reporting more, especially a crime like rape," said Larry Siegel, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

The number of rapes was up 4 percent among the 25 cities and towns. Pittsfield and Lynn, where overall violent crime went down, had large spikes in rapes.

The downward trends in bigger cities reflect more innovative policing to quell gang violence, analysts say, such as putting more officers in walking beats through dangerous neighborhoods, and assisting clergy and street workers to mediate between gangs.

"When I look at where Boston is, this is fundamentally good news," said Anthony Braga, a crime analyst at Harvard University and an adviser to the Boston Police Department. ". . . This shows that people are focusing and starting to turn things around."

In New Bedford, where violent crime fell 12 percent, police focused more on violence prevention after last year's fatal shooting of a woman, a crime that police believe was retaliation for a gang slaying in which her son was charged.

With the assistance of community safety grants, the city was able to hire more youth counselors who work with troubled children and share information with police about some of the city's most dangerous areas. Police believe that partnership has helped contribute to the decrease in violence, said Chief Ronald Teachman. As of Oct. 31, New Bedford had 39 confirmed shootings, down from 61 the same time last year, he said.

Members of the department's antigang unit meet monthly with their counterparts in neighboring Dartmouth and Fairhaven, and New Bedford police regularly exchange intelligence reports with State Police, probation officers, federal agents, and the US marshal's office.

"You need that, or we're working in a vacuum," Teachman said. "Our agency is not big enough. We don't have the resources. It helps to have resources of the state and federal system, to share what's going on. It's all about teamwork."

In Somerville, where violent crime fell 9 percent, police have targeted areas known for gang activity. According to Ryan, the chief in Arlington, that effort has caused gang members to commit crimes in Arlington, where the police presence is smaller. Recently, gang members kidnapped a rival in Somerville, then drove to Arlington to shoot him, Ryan said.

While Ryan praised Somerville for its aggressive policing, he said the shift to his town underscores the need for departments across the state to focus on violence prevention and helps explain why chiefs have begun to compare community crime statistics.

"We're not all looking at our crime individually anymore," Ryan said. "We want to be truly preventing crime, not simply moving it to another jurisdiction."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

Globe graphic Crime trends

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