Friday, April 14, 2006
How safe are we?
A look at Carlisle police statistics over 25 years
Carlisle used to be a place where we left our doors and cars open all the time. That was then. Now we are told we should lock the front door while we are gardening in back, perform criminal checks on parent volunteers, lock down the school, and be vigilant for computer viruses, unattended packages, and identity thieves. Has Carlisle really changed? Has population growth, increasing mobility, and the Internet brought a bit of the urban jungle into our green town? How safe are we?
With these questions in mind, I looked up police statistics reported in the Carlisle Annual Reports from 1980 through 2004. Since in the past 25 years the town's population increased by almost two thirds, I expected to find a more or less proportional increase in criminal, malicious, or illegal activities — or maybe a lot worse. What I found was really surprising.
The numbers go down, down
Eyeballing the data — no fancy statistical analyses — it is surprising that in the past two-and-a-half decades, the number of crimes and police calls in almost all categories have either stayed the same or actually decreased. For example:
• The number of "assault and batteries" and "breaking and entering" incidents appears not to have changed substantially. The numbers are quite low, with occasional "clusters."
• The numbers of arrests, cases of vandalism, domestic disputes, and liquor violations have gone down, some quite substantially.
• Only "suspicious activity" seems to have increased.
What accounts for these trends? Have definitions of the crimes and entries changed over the years? Is there really less criminal/illegal activity in Carlisle now than in the '80s, or are we recording the data differently?
For this exercise, those criminal activities which appeared in police reports for only a few years, such as cybercrime (reported since 2002), elder abuse (1994-95) or "lewdness" (1991, 1994-95) have been omitted. For a recent story by police reporter Kathleen Coyle on scams, cybercrime and identity theft see last week's issue, Mosquito, March 31.
"Problem —oriented policing"
"Stuff still happens in Carlisle," says Carlisle Police Chief John Sullivan, who has been a member of the Carlisle Police Department since 1986. However, there are two reasons why the number of reported incidents has decreased. The most important factor, says Sullivan, is the department's proactive approach to solving crimes. For example, in the case of a house break, Carlisle police spend about two hours investigating the scene, collecting evidence and fingerprints. They share the information with neighboring towns, look for similar patterns in crime, and maintain vigilance. "People repeat themselves. If the break occurred between 10 a.m. and two p.m., we will increase patrolling during lunch hour. Sometimes it takes two years to identify the person, but after the arrest, it's usually quiet for six months to a year."
Eighty to 90% of break-ins are drug related, and 99% of thieves are from out-of-town. Some of the vandalism, however, is home-grown. "When I first started in 1986 we had a lot of mail box destruction and vandalism on cars," Sullivan recalls. "The Police Chief told us that whoever catches the people will get a week off. I caught them in a week. I would drive around town after midnight, when most of the vandalism occurred. I found two [local] boys riding bicycles in the dark." That solved the crime wave for a while.
The second factor is that laws and penalties have become tougher. For example, there is much less tolerance for domestic abuse or drinking and driving. What may have been a simple police call in the '80s is now likely to be an arrest or summons to court. There may be just as many offenders in the community, but they are less likely to repeat.
Former Carlisle Police Chief David Galvin agrees. The police department is much more proactive in deterring repeat offenses. "If there is a house party with underage drinking, we get the parents and courts involved. This works 90% of the time. We've only had one family [that did not cooperate]." The police have also worked with the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program and that has yielded good results. Sullivan calls it "problem-oriented policing."
But if the laws are tougher, why has the number of arrests gone down? Galvin has an explanation. In the late '80s and early '90s the town had budget problems. One cost-saving measure was to issue a summons to court, rather than make an arrest whenever possible. Arrests are expensive; the department has to pay overtime, as an officer has to be present at the station at all hours for cell watch.
The number of officers in the department has remained stable at 10 or 11 for many years. This provides a minimum of two officers on duty at all times, either in the station or out on patrol. This meets Federal Bureau of Investigation guidelines of two officers per thousand town inhabitants.
New vogues in crime
While some of the decreasing statistics are due to more efficient policing, Galvin also points out that overall crime has decreased in Carlisle and neighboring towns. "Breaking and entering is down because this is not the crime of choice any more. These are usually drug-dependent people and now they prefer credit card fraud..or stealing ATM machines." (No ATMs have been vandalized in Carlisle.)
In addition to police vigilance, it has been a New England tradition to watch for unfamiliar faces and cars around town. Anyone who reads the Police Log regularly knows that suspicious sightings in Carlisle have not gone down. Why the increase in suspicious activity calls over the years? "We encourage it," says Sullivan. "If you see anything suspicious, we want to hear about it."
Suspicious person calls are frequently about door-to-door solicitors who walk or drive through neighborhoods. Many of these are college students and young people who are hired in the summer to raise funds for various causes. Sullivan says that the police try to discourage solicitors and require them to register at the police station before knocking on doors. "We explain to them that this will allow us to reassure residents when calls start coming in." By law, religious groups and some non-profits have the right to solicit without registering.
What should citizens do about unexpected or unwanted visitors? You can fill out a do-not-solicit form at the police station. Potential solicitors are given a list of do-not-solicit addresses.and the police will pick up persons who disregard it. If you are alone at home and someone rings the doorbell, as an added safety measure, bring a telephone to the door and pretend to be speaking with someone. Believing that someone else is listening is a deterrent to criminals.
Still very safe
So how safe are we? Compared to other towns and to our past, we are pretty safe. As the Chief said, stuff still happens in Carlisle, as it always has, but citizen and police vigilance and cooperation have paid off.
© 2006 The