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Stats Show City Safer, But Some Are Skeptical

Big Drops Reported In Car Thefts, Rapes, Robberies, Burglaries

January 17, 2006
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

The story of crime in Hartford last year is in many ways a tale of contrasts. Year-end crime statistics show the city is safer overall, but there are those who remain unconvinced.

The statistics for 2005 were a slam-dunk of sorts for Hartford Police Chief Patrick Harnett and his policing by the numbers. They show a 12.5 percent reduction in serious crime, with huge dips in the incidents that affect more people day to day: robberies, burglaries, and automobile thefts.

But several crimes that provoke fear and outrage - homicides, serious assaults, and shootings - were up in number. The severity of those crimes, coupled with a spike in violence in recent weeks - seven killings in Hartford since Christmas Eve - can create a different perception of how safe the city is.

There were about 800 fewer car thefts in 2005 than 2004, and the number of burglaries dropped by more than 300. Rape and robbery were also down, by 12 percent and 22 percent respectively.

But after a relatively quiet 2004, the number of homicides jumped from 17 to 25, and more than 100 additional aggravated assaults were reported, an increase of 18 percent. There were 161 shooting incidents reported, 152 the year before.

"We don't feel any safer than two years ago," said Hyacinth Yennie, chairwoman of the Maple Avenue Neighborhood Revitalization Zone. "It's happening everywhere in the city of Hartford in every corner. It's not a matter of the North End anymore. It's a city problem. I have not seen anything change."

City officials, Yennie said, cannot focus their efforts on the burst of downtown development and ignore the neighborhoods.

"There is no downtown unless the neighborhoods are safe. This is a public safety issue and [they need] to stop messing around," she said.

Allen A. Ambrose, president of the South Downtown Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, has a very different view.

"We do not have as many people expressing serious concerns in our neighborhood," said Ambrose, who says most of the complaints there are about nuisance crimes, such as car break-ins and other property crimes.

"We also have a good record with police. They respond and attend all of our meetings."

Harnett said the 12.5 percent overall reduction is proof that the department's efforts to reduce crime by focusing on community policing and analyzing statistical patterns are working.

The sharp drop in 2005 comes after several years of the overall crime numbers creeping up slightly.

At a recent gathering, Harnett championed the year-end figures like a coach satisfied with his team's performance.

He encouraged the public to applaud the officers for successfully implementing the neighborhood policing plan since last February.

During an interview, Harnett explained that the department has created a system to solve crimes.

Statistics are tracked weekly at a meeting of supervisors, he said.

Officers in particular neighborhoods must look for patterns and go after the assailants.

That, for example, helped police catch a number of youths who were stealing cars for fun, Harnett said. The total number of automobile thefts fell from 2,637 in 2004 to 1,861 in 2005, a 29.4 percent reduction.

"There were an awful lot of people paying attention to it," Harnett said.

A number of robberies were solved in a similar fashion, he said.

"Two cases that are similar are a pattern to us. It was up to the district and zone commanders to get on top of it and to come up with a plan."

But other crimes, such as assaults and murders, defy statistical analysis and are more difficult to prevent, Harnett said.

Still, the chief said, the city's homicide rate in 2005 is in line with previous years. The statistical jump of nearly 50 percent followed a relatively low 17 homicides in 2004. "Any given year in an urban city with this societal economic makeup, there are going to be murders," Harnett said.

But while the numbers tell an important story, it is not the only story about crime in Hartford.

Critics point to certain continuing problems, such as youths turning to guns to solve disputes, and a drug trade that fuels violence, as indicators that Hartford is not yet a safe city.

There is often a police officer posted at the corner of Vine Street and Albany Avenue.

Hattie Harris appreciates the officer's presence but said it hasn't stopped the gunshot blasts she hears or the drug dealers she sees. Less than a mile away, a bodega owner and a worker were gunned down by an armed robber earlier this month.

"You don't feel safer even though a police officer sits here on the corner," Harris said.

Gunfire rang out 161 times citywide, according the number of reported gun incidents in 2005, compared with 152 times in 2004.

Citywide, the number of shooting victims remained constant at 177.

Harnett wondered if the fear people feel in the city is caused by factors other than actual crime. "What role did the media play in creating the fear?" he asked.

The chief said he sees progress in the numbers, though he concedes there is more work to be done.

Twenty-five years ago, Harnett said, almost three times as many people were robbed on the streets of Hartford.

Harnett said, "My judgments are based upon the [past] year and a half," since he became chief. "I'm satisfied the crime numbers are going in the right direction. I'm not satisfied with the homicides. ... We have plenty of work to do."

Overall, he added, "I'm proud. This [the overall reduction] isn't an accident."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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