As economy founders, crime on rise

The Providence Journal | November 10, 2008
By Amanda Milkovits

Fire Lt. Stephen Capracotta tested the spongy wooden stairs to the front landing of a century-old triple-decker in Upper South Providence.

Two other Providence firefighters stepped over the front door, which had been ripped off its hinges, and went inside, avoiding the nail-studded boards and debris.

Copper pipes had long been ripped out. Dried feces was spattered on a wall. Children’s toys were piled like trash on the second floor. A chandelier, blackened by a recent fire set by an arsonist, still hung from the ceiling on the third floor. The fire had gutted the back stairwell, leaving it an empty shaft.

This multifamily house at 9-11 Frank St. had been boarded up and then burned months ago, another addition to the many vacant and abandoned houses proliferating in neighborhoods across the city. It’s one more that the firefighters in Providence, and in other cities, are checking routinely for trouble.

The firefighters look for evidence of people living inside — extension cords draped from other buildings, boards ripped off the doors, food and mattresses strewn around. The foreclosure crisis has added another dimension to firefighters’ jobs — forcing them to patrol the houses for fire hazards, knowing that if there is a fire they will have to search these hulks to make sure no one is inside.

The grim economy — the jobless rate that keeps rising and the foreclosure crisis that has crippled once-stable neighborhoods — has many, not just firefighters who see the tangible effects daily, worried that crime will rise over the next year if things worsen.

Criminologists stop short of making predictions about the recession’s impact on crime, because there are many factors beyond the economy that influence crime. While the experts and local police chiefs are cautious about predictions, they are concerned. Some communities are seeing a rise in thefts and break-ins, and the suburbs are dealing with the new troubles of vandalism and thefts at vacant homes.

“Potentially, it’s bleak. It’s impossible to make the prediction because we don’t know how serious this recession will be or where the budget cuts will be,” said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.

“There’s the direct consequence of people being out of work and being below the poverty level,” he said. “More residents are desperate to make ends meet and are willing to go outside the legal system to do it.”

At the same time, crime-fighting initiatives — such as after-school programs that kept youths off the streets — have seen a decline in financing because of the economy, Levin said.

Leo Carroll, a sociology professor at the University of Rhode Island, cautioned that the research on the impact of unemployment on crime was inconsistent.

While unemployment may increase the incentive for committing crimes, he said, not having a job means people can’t afford to go out, so they’re less likely to be robbed and their presence at home discourages burglars.

Still, the proliferation of vacant houses adds new problems. The empty homes stand as invitations to vandals, drug users and prostitutes. Their presence in a neighborhood breaks down the bonds among the residents left behind, hurting the efforts of community police, who depend on relationships in the neighborhoods to fight crime.

“If a community becomes thoroughly impoverished, a grass-roots effort no longer works,” Levin said.

THE POLICE Executive Research Forum, in Washington, D.C., surveyed police chiefs and sheriffs this summer about how the economic troubles were affecting their departments. The survey uncovered worries about rising disorder caused by vacant houses attracting vandals, gangs and prostitutes, even as police departments’ operating budgets are decreasing.

Recent figures show that Rhode Island has the sixth-highest foreclosure rate in the country, with an estimated 1,700 mortgages beginning foreclosure proceedings in April, May and June, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, in Washington.

“I’m seeing a lot of communities where there was homeownership, where neighbors were coming together, and then the neighbors are gone, and the house is boarded up,” said Providence Police Chief Dean M. Esserman. “I also see Amos House and soup kitchens where lines are longer than I’ve ever seen it before. Often, it’s entire families. I see it not just in the bricks and mortar. I see it in the spirit.”

Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent in September, 3.1 points higher than the New England average.

In Central Falls, where the police have noticed families doubling up in apartments to save money, Police Chief Joseph Moran says, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know when there’s a lack of jobs, people still need to survive.”

One bellwether is a rising number of thefts and break-ins, including a spate of thefts of copper from vacant buildings. In Central Falls, the police are working to crack down on copper thefts; there are about 140 vacant houses in the city.

In Providence, break-ins have risen by 17.7 percent compared with the same time last year, from 1,413 to 1,663 as of Nov. 2, said police Maj. Thomas Oates. Part of the increase is attributed to the theft of copper from vacant houses, Oates said.

Warwick Police Chief Stephen McCartney said there’s been a rash of thefts from marinas, along with break-ins and thefts of GPS equipment from vehicles. “People are more desperate,” he said.

At the other end of the justice system, the director of the Department of Corrections is expecting an increase in the number of inmates. A.T. Wall said admissions to the Adult Correctional Institutions had risen in the first quarter, and the department was preparing for an increase of 1,000 admissions over the next year, which would bring total admissions for the year to more than 18,000.

“I don’t want to sound the alarm now. We’re not there, but we believe the weakening economy will have an effect,” Wall said.

An options package passed by the General Assembly a few months ago helped decrease the strain on the ACI by allowing some inmates to shave time off their sentences for good behavior, Wall said.

When inmates are released, they overwhelmingly say they need a job, Wall said. “But experience tells us, as employment opportunities dry up, they’re going to turn to illicit activities,” he said.

AS THE FIREFIGHTERS left the vacant house at 9-11 Frank St., Albert Beauparlant pulled up to the tenement next door. He said he bought the multifamily at 15 Frank St. from a bank sale and planned to fix it up. The copper pipes were stolen before he closed on the property. He boarded up the doors and windows.

And then came the banking crisis on Wall Street.

Beauparlant said he can’t get a loan, and there’s no program for vacant foreclosed properties. “Right now, we have to wait for financing, but with Wall Street losing 10 percent in the last couple of days, it doesn’t help us at all. It’s like the perfect storm,” Beauparlant said.

He is in limbo, waiting for the credit crisis to turn around and trying to keep thieves out of his building.

But the intruders have cordless drills and Sawzalls, he tells the firefighters, and they are persistent.