Violent crime in the Berkshires: North Adams highest rate in Mass.; Pittsfield ninth-highest

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PITTSFIELD — According to recently released FBI statistics, two Berkshire County cities have the dubious distinction of having some of the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the state.

North Adams has the highest rate of violent crime in Massachusetts, at 1.38 percent. Pittsfield has the ninth-highest, at 0.79 percent.

North Adams and Pittsfield are the only two Berkshire County cities or towns among the 10 highest rates in the state.

The rates are calculated based on the population of each city divided by the number of violent crimes reported.

Pittsfield police Chief Michael Wynn said that while the figures reflect an increase in violent crime in 2016 from 2015, they don't provide a complete picture.

Wynn said the numbers are a snapshot of the 2016 calendar year but don't acknowledge the decline in property crimes in Pittsfield, such as burglaries and car thefts, from the same time period.

The number of property crimes declined from 1,270 in 2015 to 1,016 in 2016, according to the FBI.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer said she's aware of and shares the same concerns and anxieties that news of high crime rates can cause but assures the public that Pittsfield is a safe city.

"We are not naive to assume that we're not dealing with crime. We have a certain element of our society that has chosen to conduct themselves in a criminal manner. And, at the same time, we are doing our best to make the proper investments in the Police Department," Tyer said.

Among those investments is Amanda Steben, the city's crime analyst, who compiles daily data from the department and is able to develop a more current overview of the state of crime in the city, rather than reacting to the FBI's annual data, which represent the previous year.

"That alone helps us be better decision-makers," Tyer said.

Wynn said the data show that Pittsfield is on track to have a lower violent crime rate in 2017 than it did last year.

The city's data from Jan. 1 to Oct. 6, show a total of 238 incidents of murder, robbery (armed and unarmed), aggravated assault and sexual assault.

According to the FBI, there were 340 reports of violent crimes in the same categories for all of 2016 in Pittsfield, which is trying to bolster the ranks of the police force.

"While we know that our current police station is not sufficient for a modern law enforcement agency with all of the challenges they have, we are still challenged with, `How do we pay for it?'" Tyer said.

Wynn said that in 2014-2015, the state's Police Advisory Committee recommended 100 to 120 officers for a city with Pittsfield's population.

Wynn said that for planning purposes, the city worked with a population of about 70,000, to account for the number of people who regularly travel into the city but are not among the 45,000 to 46,000 permanent residents.

"Our authorized strength under the current budget is 99 (officers)," Wynn said. "Our actual strength roster today is 89, which is up significantly from where we were in 2016."

"We're chipping away at it," Wynn said, adding that any uptick in violent crimes can't be attributed solely to money or personnel.

"We certainly can't put it on the staffing or the budget, because [Tyer] has been working with us, determined to increase our staffing, and stabilize and increase our budget," Wynn said. "We're seeing the benefits of those increases now, in 2017.

"We're in better shape now than we were during the reporting (period)," Wynn said.

The news of the FBI statistics comes about the same time as police and the District Attorney's office are investigating the shooting death of 22-year-old Asiyanna Jones on the night of Oct. 2 on Dewey Avenue.

Because that incident is under investigation, Wynn couldn't comment on it specifically but did say that people should not be concerned about being a victim of random crime, which is rare.

"There's no information from any of the investigations we have, not only in the 2016 reporting period, but prior to that and this year, that would suggest that there's randomness to any of these personal violent crimes," Wynn said.

"These are people who are known to one another, in most cases have history together," he said.

"It's tragic and it's unfortunate, but the vast majority of our aggravated assaults and violent crime occur in residential neighborhoods. Our downtown ... and our shopping areas are some of our safest areas in the city," Wynn said.

"I always tell (people), there is absolutely no reason to be afraid to walk down North Street," Steben said.

"I look at every single call that comes into the Police Department, and the fear is just not justified," Steben said. "It's a perception, but it's not based on reality."

"We have a highly trained, highly professional and dedicated Police Department prepared to respond to crimes when they occur, to investigate crimes after they occur and to monitor, through our data, areas where there's an uptick or concern that might need a pivot in strategy and tactics," Tyer said. "That is what I would reassure the public about."

Pittsfield's rate of 0.79 percent is based on 340 violent crimes reported in 2016 among a population of 43,031. Those crimes include three murders, 37 rapes, 39 robberies and 261 aggravated assaults.

Pittsfield's violent crime rate in 2015 was 0.65 percent and based on 284 violent crimes and a population of 43,450. That figure includes four murders, 38 rapes, 34 robberies and 208 aggravated assaults.

By comparison, the city of Billerica, which has a 2016 population comparable to that of Pittsfield, had a rate of 0.1 percent, based on 43 violent crimes during that time period.

Springfield had a 2016 rate of 1.03 percent, Worcester's rate was 0.89 percent and Boston's rate was calculated at 0.7 percent.

Nearby, Albany's rate was 0.86 percent and the rate in Bennington Vermont, was also 0.86 percent.

In North Adams, there were 181 violent crimes reported in 2016: 152 aggravated assaults, 20 rapes and nine robberies in a city of about 13,162.

The total number of violent crimes reported in North Adams in 2015 was 143, with 129 aggravated assaults, eight robberies and six rapes, according to the FBI.

North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said he has met with North Adams police Director Michael Cozzaglio in response to the most recently released figures.

"We need to work harder on trying to mitigate crime and trying to figure out why these things are happening in our community and what we should be doing to help prevent these before they happen," Alcombright said.

Anyone who looks at the report "could certainly" look at North Adams as unsafe, Alcombright acknowledged.

"I'm all around the city all the time, and I certainly don't feel unsafe, and would think that most people don't feel unsafe," Alcombright said. "But numbers don't lie, and if it's a cause for concern for people, we need to be looking harder at why these things are happening."

Alcombright said the city officials will continue to meet and try to determine the root of the city's high crime numbers.

He noted that cities with similar socioeconomic demographics like Lawrence and Holyoke are below North Adams.

"There probably needs to be some research done on this," Alcombright said.

Nine other Berkshire County cities and towns had data available for 2016. Adams, 0.3 percent; Becket, 0.1 percent; Dalton, 0.18 percent; Egremont, 0.08 percent; Great Barrington, 0.16 percent; Lee, 0.22 percent; Lenox, 0.16 percent; Stockbridge, 0.2 percent and Williamstown, 0.16 percent.

Statewide, the violent crime rate remained at 0.38 percent, with only a slight increase in the total number of violent crimes reported, from 25,562 in 2015 to 25,677 last year.

Nationally, the number of violent crimes jumped from 1.2 million in 2015 to 1.25 million in 2016, an increase of 4.1 percent, according to the FBI.

The FBI also reported that, in the U.S., aggravated assaults accounted for 64.3 percent of violent crimes reported to law enforcement. Robbery accounted for 26.6 percent, rape 7.7 percent and murder 1.4 percent.

Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.

Reach staff writer Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376 or @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter.


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