With Robberies And Aggravated Assaults On Rise, Activists And Merchants Call For Expanded Police Presence In Southern Half Of Hartford
September 18, 2006
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer
The sign in the window at the Great Wall Chinese Restaurant on Maple Avenue in Hartford says "Help Wanted."
But Sean Lu isn't sure he'll get many takers.
His three previous drivers quit out of fear. Each was robbed at gunpoint of food and money - one of them twice, the manager of the family-owned restaurant said.
Less than a block away from the restaurant, Bank of America took the unusual step of shutting down a drive-through ATM after a number of customers reported that they had been robbed there.
Over the last two years, crime has generally been on a downward track in Hartford, though homicides spiked in 2005 and flare-ups, such as a wave of shootings in the North End last spring, tend to spark close scrutiny.
But neighborhood activists and merchants in the city's southern half are looking at some statistics with alarm. In the southeast section of the city, which includes Barry Square, the South End and downtown Hartford, robberies have shot up, increasing more than 50 percent over last year. Aggravated assaults are up as well.
In southwest Hartford, which includes the Frog Hollow, Parkville and Behind The Rocks neighborhoods, robberies also are up, by about 35 percent. Larcenies have increased in both sections.
Other crime categories - murder, burglary and rape, among them - are down.
The increases in robberies, larcenies and aggravated assaults have sparked a call to the Hartford Police Department for stepped-up enforcement and higher visibility. Merchants are also moving ahead on their own, with one group spending $40,000 to put a patrol van with strobe lights on the streets at night.
"We don't want to scare people away," said Hyacinth Yennie, a community organizer with the Maple Avenue Merchants Association. "We are working real hard to make sure our streets are safe."
Trouble After Dark
By day, the city's South End bustles with people from inside and outside the city shopping and eating.
But David Barbieri, whose mother owns Mishy & David's, a clothing store on Franklin Avenue, said the neighborhood changes once the street lights come on.
"At least twice I've seen fighting in the street. ... My guard is up. ... At night you see a bunch of people hanging behind the buildings. On weekends it's especially crazy," he said.
Gilberto Allara, who purchased a multifamily house two months ago in the Barry Square section, says he blames the spike in certain crimes on drug dealers who, he says, often park their cars in front of his house and congregate on the sidewalk.
"You've got good people who live here," Allara said. "Why you going to do that on this street?"
He posted "Keep Out" and "Police Take Notice" signs on the windows of his apartments, hoping to scare loiterers away. But the traffic of buyers and sellers kept coming until a police officer started parking at night in the gasoline station lot across the street.
"You put a cop there every single day - and every single night you won't have that," Allara said.
Police and neighborhood activists say there's no single culprit or reason for the spike in crime. Some blame drugs; others say the diversion of resources to stem a wave of shootings in the city's North End this summer left the southern half of the city vulnerable.
One pattern uncovered by police involved the theft of cellular telephones.
In July and August, police say, at least a half-dozen people were robbed of cellphones, which were used to call local pizza and Chinese restaurants for deliveries. When the drivers arrived, groups of people in their teens and 20s robbed the drivers of food and money at gunpoint.
At the Great Wall restaurant on Maple Avenue, three delivery drivers had already been robbed in August when a woman called about 10 p.m. one night asking for a delivery to Wethersfield Avenue.
By then, Lu and his drivers knew of the risk. Several other Chinese restaurants from Park Street to Maple Avenue were robbed repeatedly in August, he said. But delivering food is a major part of the business, so the driver walked out the door with the order.
Before the driver reached his car, Lu said, a man wielding a gun jumped out from behind a telephone booth. He demanded the car keys, money - and the food - before ordering the driver to cross the street. The robber then drove away in one of Great Wall's delivery cars.
About a block away from Great Wall, Marian Cardone, a Maple Avenue resident for some 60 years, says she regularly looks out her window before going to bed at night.
One night in July, she said, she saw a teenager get out of a car and take a seat on her porch, which faces a Bank of America branch at the corner of Maple Avenue and Preston Street. Cardone said that before she could do anything, the young man on her porch tied a dark-color bandanna over his face and ran across the street toward a car approaching the bank's ATM.
The bank has since shut down the machine in the rear of the building after several customers complained that they had been robbed, Hartford Police Deputy Chief Jose Lopez said.
Ernesto Anguilla, a spokesman for the bank, couldn't say for sure how many of its ATMs across the Northeast have been shut down because of security issues.
He acknowledged, however: "It doesn't happen regularly."
A Call For Police
Neighborhood activists want the Hartford Police Department to play a more active role in stemming the problem.
"We need more police visibility," said Yennie, the activist. "Barry Square has one of the highest crime rates in the city."
Among all city neighborhoods, north and south, Barry Square has had the most robberies in 2006 - 73. Frog Hollow is a close second with 67.
The South Hartford Alliance, a nonprofit organization of all merchant associations in Hartford's South End, is helping tackle the problem on its own. Earlier this summer, the organization spent $40,000 on two vans. The vehicles, with strobe lights, are driven by Hartford Guides who are assigned to patrol the area.
Visible patrols are needed at a time when the South End has become a place of "opportunity" for criminals taking advantage of stepped up patrols by city and state police in Hartford's North End, said Alphonse Marotta, a former city councilman and president of the Franklin Avenue Merchants Association.
"[The van drivers] try to be the eyes and ears for the police department," Marotta said, and "to give people who come to the area a sense of safety and security."
"Visibility can't hurt," said Councilman John Bazzano, a South End resident.
But Bazzano, along with officials in the Hartford Police Department, said most of what neighborhood residents experienced this summer were relatively isolated issues and should not be seen as a sign of a deeper problem. Crime today in the South End is not as bad as it was three years ago, Bazzano noted.
"A lot of crimes can be attributed to illicit activity," he said. "I live there. It's a great place to live. I don't have a problem. I think the police are on it. I don't think it's open season at all. One person can create a crime wave," Bazzano said.
Lopez, Hartford's deputy police chief and commander of the southern half of the city, said many of the department's crime fighting efforts are handled by undercover narcotics and major crimes detectives and other officers.
"We are working hard to get information that would lead to the apprehension of these individuals" committing the recent spate of burglaries and robberies," Lopez said. "We believe it is a couple of groups. We are looking for those who are still doing it and at those who committed previous robberies."
Lopez said he is seeing signs of progress and said an increased presence has slowed the robberies.
In early August, teams of undercover police officers set up surveillance in various parts of the South End, hoping to catch the teams of robbers, Lopez said. In several cases, the officers arrested convicted felons on weapons charges. Although police were unable to charge anyone with the cellular telephone restaurant robberies, Lopez said police believe they may have caught at least some of those responsible.
In another example, four men that police suspected were preparing to rob customers at an ATM were stopped in a motor vehicle that contained weapons.
"We are trying to do proactive things to catch them," Lopez said. "We are trying to get ahead of this before someone is seriously injured."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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