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Crime Series: Springfield's Violent Crime Problems

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Authorities in Massachusetts’ third largest city are using innovation, technology, and more police on patrol to combat violent crime.

Total crime is down about 8 percent in Springfield so far this year, according to the Springfield Police Department.  It is in keeping with a national trend of steadily declining crime rates. But, the crime that makes the headlines – homicides – stands at 13, just one shy of the total number of murders Springfield recorded for all of last year.

Despite the murder rate, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno insists the vast majority of people who live, work, or visit his city have nothing to fear.

" These murders that are occurring--and one is too many, don't get me wrong-- are targeted. They seem to be gang related and you have the tragedy of domestic violence.  In the majority of these crimes, the police have already made arrests," said Sarno.

Sarno, who has repeatedly stressed public safety is his top priority since he was first elected mayor in 2007, has budgeted to hire more police. When a class of new recruits graduates from the police academy later this year and are sworn in the city will have more than 400 uniformed officers for the first time in nearly two decades.

To pay for more cops, the mayor has earmarked some of the cash MGM has agreed to pay the city for the rights to build a downtown casino.

Lately, Sarno has campaigned for detention and sentencing reforms that he says are needed to keep violent career criminals off the city’s streets.

" These individuals are the hardcore repeat gun-toting drug-dealers and gangbangers.  I am determined to get these people locked-up, get their due process, and hold them," he  said.

Springfield Police Commissioner John Barbieri said mid-sized cities in Massachusetts and elsewhere have seen a recent uptick in gun violence.

"Our biggest push is to reach out to the community and get them to cooperate.  Suspects are not always nice enough to leave fingerprints, or blood evidence or hair and fibers. We need witnesses  and that is the public," said Barbieri.

The Springfield Police Department has been reorganized to put more patrol officers and supervisors on the streets. A crime analysis unit has been launched to provide information to the patrols in real-time. Training has been improved to make it less likely a police officer will resort to deadly force when confronted with a tense situation.

Barbieri said these steps, and more, he has taken since becoming commissioner a year ago are designed to make the police more proactive in preventing crime and more responsive to the public.

" We have made a lot of progress. It is incremental slow change," said Barbieri.

Springfield pioneered an anti-crime initiative called C-3 Policing.  Barbieri, who supervised the program in the North End neighborhood when he was a deputy chief, expanded it earlier this year to more neighborhoods.   The targeted areas make up just three percent of the city’s total area, but account for 12 percent of the city’s total crime.

The program uses teams of local police and Massachusetts State Police who work closely with residents and business owners in the neighborhoods to gather information on criminal activity. It is modeled in part on tactics used by the U.S. military to counter insurgents during the war in Iraq.

The innovative approach to disrupting gang activity is credited with dramatic double-digit drops in crime in the area of the North End where it was introduced six years ago.

Jose Claudio of the New North Citizens Council said the early participants in C-3 Policing had to overcome the “anti-snitch culture” and complacency about crime that had settled over the neighborhood.  Now, he said there are more than 60 people who meet faithfully every Thursday with the community police officers to share information.

" I think the secret is to get residents involved and have the right police officers working together," said Claudio. " It has made a big difference in our neighborhood."

Springfield is one of more than 80 cities in the country that uses a network of acoustic sensors that pinpoint the location of gunfire and transmit the information within seconds to police dispatchers and to laptop computers in police cruisers.  A map on the computer screen pinpoints where the gunshots occurred and there is an audio recording.

ShotSpotter, the company that owns and markets the gunshot detection technology, reported gunfire incidents declined by more than 20 percent in the 31 U.S. communities that had the technology in place in both 2013 and 2014. 

In Springfield the number of gunshots detected by the sensors was down 50 percent last year.  The gunshot sensors cover roughly six square miles of Springfield’s total 33-square mile area.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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