Are Foot Patrols Improving Worcester’s Dangerous Neighborhoods?
Tuesday, March 04, 2014
“It's been tremendously rewarding, successful,” William Breault, chair of the Main South Alliance for Public Safety, told members of the city's public safety committee last week. “A lot of changes are going on in city government, I hope this success stays the way it is.”
A “Tactical Response Area” (TRA) designation was spurred in February 2013 based on negative crime trends in the Main South neighborhood according to a communication to city officials from Police Chief Gary Gemme. “The TRA strategy is primarily short-term with a citywide focus based on an identifiable need,” he wrote at that time. While the concentration of resources was initially expected to be temporary, the foot patrols were made permanent last June.
Today, the increased police presence remains in effect around Main South and Union Hill. While Worcester has its share of crime, befitting its standing as the second-largest city in New England, residents say law enforcement efforts are paying dividends.
Identifying violent crime, Worcester has fewer offenses on a per capita basis than the smaller communities of Lawrence, Springfield, Fall River, New Bedford, Brockton, and Chelsea. Those rankings based on 2012 Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics included murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
TRAs focused on crime hot spots
“The TRAs are one of several strategies we employ throughout the city, and it's based on information that we obtain from the neighborhood watch program, officers on the street, street intelligence, and information from crime analysts,” Gemme said, speaking before the public safety committee.
Increased enforcement in the two experimental policing districts — Main South and Union Hill — involves extra uniformed officers working with community groups, patrolling city blocks on foot, and increasing traffic enforcement. “It's very hands-on, grassroots-level policing in the city,” according to Gemme.
Place-based crime prevention works
In a review last year of 23 studies of so-called “hot spot” policing efforts, the U.S. Department of Justice's Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program found consistent evidence that focusing police efforts on high-activity crime areas had positives all around, including benefiting the surrounding area outside the targeted location.
“Residents are just saying, 'thank you',” said city Counselor Sarai Rivera, whose district 4 covers the Main South neighborhood. Residents are responding “how they've really seen a difference, business owners as well.”
Breault said this week the area had been a perennially difficult one for law enforcement. “We need and want the foot beats,” he said. “The incidents speak for themselves.”
Hit hard by the loss of employers and manufacturing beginning in the 1950s onward, various organizations have focused on revitalizing the Main South neighborhood over the ensuing years, from the Main South Community Development Corporation to Clark University.
“I feel like we're often at a turning point,” said Barbara Haller, a resident and former city council member. Haller said she steels herself before picking up the newspaper every morning, equally expecting good or bad news.
“I do see (us) as making improvements,” she continued, crediting the development efforts of the Main South CDC and Worcester Common Ground, among others. “There's a lot of positive going on.” But the stress of poverty and language is a barrier to the neighborhood's ability to move ahead.
“Certainly, the community policing is the foundation for all this other stuff to come together,” according to Haller, likening the revitalization of Main South as a pilot for the city as a whole.
Safety in a given neighborhood takes precedence when deciding where to live or start a business. “Public safety is really key,” she said.
Breault tallied longstanding issues around prostitution and gangs. “The resources are there, the commitment is there,” he said, with the added police presence. “We need the commitment.”
Foot patrols are oldest technique in the book
Quite naturally, foot patrols are the oldest form of police legwork according to the Public Safety Strategies Group, a Massachusetts company that researches law enforcement efficacy.
“The use of foot patrols decreased substantially in the last century before reemerging as a community policing tool,” according to a policy brief by that group's director, Kym Craven. “Historically, foot patrols had a small effect on crime, but significant changes have been recorded with increased community stratification. Departments that take the positive elements of foot patrols and combine their efforts with data analysis that focuses on the time, location, and type of crime, may use the findings to develop strategies to decrease crime and enhance the quality of life in their communities.”
“Crime prevention and community satisfaction with police services, while linked to the number of officers on the streets, does not depend entirely on the visibility of patrol officers. Community engagement, targeted initiatives, strategic use of resources, and data-driven decision-making contribute to decreasing crime. Foot patrols should be perceived and promoted as an important component of the department's strategic operating plan,” Craven concluded.
Police force boosting percentage of uniformed officers
Gemme tallied 357 officers in the police force today after additions from last year's academy, with proportionally more uniformed officers on the streets than in previous years. (The number of supervisors has dropped from 93 to 83.)
The city has budgeted for a 367-member department for the past two years, close to a previous high of 383.
Related Slideshow: Worcester’s Most Dangerous Neighborhoods
Neighborhood search website Neighborhood Scout indexed violent and property crimes data from the Federal Bureau of Investigations to determine the crime rates on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis in Worcester. The slides below show the overall crime index (a score of 100 is best) as well as the per capita crime rates broken down by violent and property crime. The data is sourced from 2011 figures, the most recent year available from the FBI. The online resource is created by Location, Inc., a Worcester-area company that bills itself as a leader of location-based data and risk analysis information.
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