When the state first enacted its stay-at-home advisory in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus, leaving many unemployed or struggling financially, some questioned whether the lockdown would leave some Massachusetts communities more vulnerable to crime.
But though some Bay State cities say they've seen a recent uptick in gun-related incidents, data from the first six months of the pandemic in Brockton, Lawrence and Springfield indicate that reports of both violent crime and property crime have declined compared to the same period in 2019.
According to Alyssa Elwell, director of the crime and disorder analysis unit for the Lawrence Police Department, reported crime there declined about 37 percent overall compared to the same time frame in 2019, with 468 incidents reported between March and August last year and 295 reported during those months in 2020.
Reports of violent crime — which includes murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery — decreased by about 35 percent year over year, while reports of property crime — including burglary, felony larceny, and motor vehicle theft — declined by nearly 40 percent, the data show. The city saw three murders during that period in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Officers have tried to limit their exposure to the public in light of COVID-19, said Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque, and are taking a less proactive approach to enforcing minor infractions, which could have an impact on the figures.
According to Vasque, this year is the third consecutive year of historic low crime rates in Lawrence. That trend held for the first few months of 2020, but officials weren't certain at first if the pandemic would throw the city off course, he said.
"I wasn't sure what to really expect. Initially we thought, it's certainly going to shut things down and quiet things down. But then we started thinking after a little while, is that going to cause people to go stir crazy and now we're going to have some serious spikes?" he said. "And we really haven't seen that, crazy spikes."
Vasque said Lawrence also hasn't seen a recent spate of gun-related incidents, as some Bay State cities have.
In a recent roundtable discussion in Boston on reducing gun violence and enforcing firearms laws, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling pointed to a "surge" in violent crime during the public health crisis. Just a few days after, five people were shot over a 12-hour period in Boston, according to media reports.
"Even amidst a global pandemic, our local law enforcement partners are working harder than ever in major cities like Boston, Brockton and Springfield. However, despite their best efforts, repeat offenders continue to mock the criminal justice system," Lelling said, according to a report in the New Bedford Times. "COVID has almost certainly emboldened violent offenders who think that the criminal justice system is closed."
As of Oct. 25, there had been 41 fatal shootings in Boston this year, compared to 24 fatal shootings during the same period in 2019, according to Boston Police Department data. A recent New York Times analysis of Uniform Crime Report data, published in July, also found that while overall crime in 25 large American cities had dropped 5.3 percent compared to 2019, murder increased by 16.1 percent.
In Springfield, there have been 24 more shootings in 2020 than at this point in 2019, according to Ryan Walsh, public information officer for the Springfield Police Department. He attributes that surge to court closures and relaxed conditions of release for "violent repeat offenders" who are out on bail.
"I think the impacts we see with the pandemic is some of these cases should be wrapped up and these individuals that are out on bail, if convicted, would be serving their sentence right now," Walsh said. "Some of those cases are lingering on."
But Walsh doesn't believe the pandemic is driving any kind of general crime spike. Data from March through August show that violent crime in Springfield dropped about 4 percent compared to those six months in 2019. He said the city also saw a 4 percent decrease in violent crime for the same period between 2018 and 2019.
"It follows along the same positive trend our city has seen in the past several years," he said.
Murder has remained about level, with 10 for that period in 2018, 10 in 2019 and 11 in 2020, Walsh said. Property crime declined 10 percent between 2019 and 2020, as compared to a 1.5 percent increase between 2018 and 2019.
According to Walsh, burglaries notably dropped 25 percent relative to last year, which "can more likely than not be attributed to the pandemic since more people are at home, making their property a hard target instead of a soft or easy target for criminals."
Acting Brockton Police Chief Emanual Gomes noted that while overall crime reports have not risen, there has been an increase in people reaching out to police because of mental health concerns, domestic violence incidents and homelessness.
A recent study led by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital found that though the facility saw fewer victims of intimate partner violence between March and May than the year before, there were more instances of severe physical abuse or injury, which could indicate that victims are waiting longer to reach out for help because of fears around COVID-19.
Overall, Brockton saw 268 violent crimes reported between March and August in 2019, compared to 195 this year, according to Gomes, which constitutes a 27 percent drop. Property crime has remained about level from 2019 to 2020, he said.
Gomes said Brockton instituted a curfew early in the pandemic due to high COVID-19 case counts, which has potentially affected crime rates by keeping late-night establishments closed. To keep officers safe during the public health crisis, the city has also cut back on traffic enforcement and limited close contact with the public.
Like Springfield, Brockton has seen an uptick in gun violence, but those incidents have largely not resulted in any deaths, Gomes said, with a total of four homicides reported in the city so far this year. He also pointed to a disrupted court system as a factor in the increase.
"(Offenders) tend not to fear the court system much these days, and even less with this pandemic, even less when it's closed," Gomes said.
It's difficult to say whether the numbers will fluctuate in the coming months, with no definite end to the pandemic in sight. For now, officials say they're focusing on keeping their officers and the public safe.
"I think we're just following the best practices across not only the Commonwealth but the country, trying to police smartly and not put our officers in danger and things like that. We're just learning as we go," Vasque, the Lawrence Police Chief, said. "It's a new age and obviously new things going on; we're just trying to do the best we can to adapt to the next situation."