If you pay any attention to the news, it might seem like 2013 has seen an uptick in crime. Just within the past week there’s been extensive coverage of Abigail Hernandez, a 15-year-old girl who went missing earlier this month in North Conway. A Belmont man pleaded not guilty to brutally murdering his mother and brother. A Concord mother was sentenced for torturing her 18-year-old son. And, according to the Union Leader, a convicted felon was convicted of raping a woman in Nashua eight days after he was released from prison.
But headlines don’t always tell the whole story, particularly in New Hampshire, one of the safest states in the country.
“It’s so hard to determine, when we see the news, and we all have 24/7 access … we hear about these horrible things, and they seem to be localized,” said Ted Kirkpatrick, criminologist and associate dean at the University of New Hampshire’s College of Liberal Arts.
Crime-related news, coupled with political unrest and global conflicts, makes it difficult to comprehend the news rationally.
“Bad things happen, global events, horrible stories. ... When these reports come out, and these bad things happen, whether it’s Manchester, Berlin, Pittsburg, it can just feel like it’s part of the unraveling of Western civilization,” Kirkpatrick said.
The reality is the crime rate nationally and locally has dropped considerably over the last two decades, particularly for violent crimes, Kirkpatrick said. There are occasional spikes that create a feeling of danger and a lack of security.
In Manchester, for example, the city experienced such a spike in burglaries this past July. Those burglaries, both individual incidents and the sudden increase, grabbed headlines as well.
The increase caught residents’ attention and understandably had residents concerned. But the decrease and stabilization in burglaries since that time might not have received the same attention.
In July 2013 there were 148 burglaries in Manchester. There were only 90 in July 2012. There were just 82 in June 2013.
“This is a serious uptick,” said Manchester Police Chief David Mara. “What we were finding is that it was tied directly to drug addiction. The overwhelming majority are hooked on, for the most part, prescription drugs and heroin. But if we weren’t keeping track, than we might have said anecdotally, ‘We seem to be taking a lot of burglary reports,’ but we wouldn’t know the number, the extent.”
Mara held a community meeting in the summer to alert the public and to give people tips on how to prevent becoming burglary victims. Since then, burglary numbers dropped to 109 in August and down to 78 in September.
“So we had three months of a decline, which is encouraging, but it’s still too many,” Mara said, adding the declines are likely tied to public awareness and a number of arrests.
Another difficulty in reconciling perception and reality is that news outlets are perhaps less likely to publish a prominent story on crime rates decreasing or stabilizing, Kirkpatrick said.
In addition, officials don’t really know what’s going on with crime until a year later, at least in terms of data collection. When a particular type of crime increases in frequency, officers have no way of knowing if that increase is the beginning of a larger trend or just a blip. It takes time to determine that root cause, Kirkpatrick said.
“This is if you’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and the tide is going out, but occasionally you see whitecaps in the horizon,” Kirkpatrick said. “They’re just blips. The fact is that that larger trend is that the tide is going out, even if the whitecaps come up occasionally.”
The economy has been in trouble for the last several years and people often make the connection that poor economic times lead to more burglaries and robberies. Kirkpatrick isn’t sure they’re tied together. Property crimes, like larceny theft or burglary, can fluctuate, but year over year, they typically don’t change much, he said.
Mara said police throughout the state and likely the country are dealing with a similar situation when it comes to drug-related burglaries. People are getting hooked on prescription drugs and they become desperate for cash to buy more, so they steal to feed the habit. It’s not a new cycle. In the 1980s, law enforcement saw major bumps in robberies and burglaries tied to people feeding crack addictions, Mara said.
“There’s an axiom in police work. We can’t arrest away all the crime, because there’s always a root cause,” Mara said.
Kirkpatrick said on a larger scale the rate of violent crime will probably plateau or even rise again at some point, but he said he didn’t know if the country would ever see the same levels of violent crime as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Manchester is still a safe city to live in, but that’s why I want to know what’s going on so we can work together to prevent crime,” Mara said.