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Downtown fares poorly in crime study February 6, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
Downtown fares poorly in crime study By Lisa Kocian, Globe Staff | February 6, 2005 The color-coded map of arrests in Framingham tells the story, with a blue bull's-eye hovering right over downtown.

The map is part of a study recently released by police that found the downtown, which accounts for about one of the town's 26 square miles, is the scene of 40 to 48 percent of all arrests.

The police also announced the results of a survey that found nearly 40 percent of downtown business owners and managers often don't feel safe in the area.

The information allows police to more efficiently assign officers, and it is part of a larger push by the town to revitalize the area, said Chief Steven Carl.

"If you're going to invest this money into infrastructure, you've got to make sure the downtown is safe and perceived as safe," he said.

Carl said the survey unearthed useful information that might not have shown up in the usual police statistics.

For example, 31 percent of 133 owners or managers surveyed said they had a "problem" once a week or more with gangs.

Some of the data suggest that while Framingham has the types of crimes associated with larger cities, its police department is still staffed as if it were a suburb.

"When you think of Framingham, you think of the suburbs, and yet Framingham has many urban-like problems," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston.  "You can't staff Framingham the way that you would staff Milford or Bellingham.  Framingham has affluence, but it also has poverty.  It's much more diverse than its neighbors."

"Let's face it," he said, "poverty breeds crime."

Police say the town has staffing levels similar to its affluent neighbor Wayland when the population differences between the two communities are considered.  The town has more police per capita than Somerville, just north of Boston, but fewer than Newton and Waltham, west of Boston.

The survey also showed resounding support for foot patrols, with 47 percent of businesses saying they were the most important type of police presence.

The survey was designed by Patrolman Chris Murtagh, who is working on a doctorate in social policy at Brandeis University.

He told selectmen that an important side effect of the survey, which was done in person, was that officers, both English- and Portuguese-speaking, were able to establish better connections with the businesses.  Murtagh said some owners and managers might be leery of calling police because they might have concerns about immigration issues, but officers used the personal contacts to try to allay those fears.

Carl said cultural differences might also make some immigrant merchants reluctant to call police because it's not the usual practice in their native countries.

The study, which focused on data from 2000 to 2002, found the area was the site of a disproportionate number of arrests in every crime category.  Police said much of the crime was directly or indirectly related to alcohol abuse.

In 2002, the downtown area, which is roughly the square mile surrounding the intersection of routes 126 and 135, saw 32 percent of all the town's drug arrests, 40 percent of the assault and battery arrests, 42 percent of the sex crimes, and 50 percent of the breaking and entering arrests. The Salvation Army on Route 126 serves dinner to about 100 people every night, operates a food pantry, and hosts recovery meetings such as those organized by Alcoholics Anonymous, according to Major Jacquelin Triston of the Salvation Army of Framingham.

"Framingham is a very recovery-oriented community," she said, partly because it is the hub of Boston's western suburbs and accessible by public transportation.

The Salvation Army is within walking distance of a methadone clinic and the wet shelter, which admits the homeless even if they are intoxicated.

Triston said she sees more failures than successes among people struggling to turn their lives around, but she hoped residents would accept the work the Salvation Army does.

"You never know when your life is going to take a turn you're not prepared for," she said.  "Any one of us could lose our job or homes."

Some business owners said the downtown area has markedly improved in recent years.  Donald Vogt, co-owner of Woodstuff, an unfinished-furniture store on Concord Street, said he has had the store there for eight years without a problem.

"The one area that really needs improvement is perception," he said.  "I think downtown has taken a very unfair rap.  . . . I see it as a very friendly, safe place to be."

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