The number of homicides statewide plummeted 39 percent last year over 2011, according to figures provided by State Police, who attributed the dramatic decline in part to a more vigorous focus on violence-plagued areas.
“We’re targeting the impact players and going into the areas we know where the violent crime occurs,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Francis Matthews, commander of the Division of Investigative Services.
State Police have deployed Community Action Teams in cities and towns such as Lawrence, Lynn, Holyoke, Chicopee, Brockton, New Bedford, and Fall River. The teams are composed of about a dozen troopers who conduct “crime suppression” in areas of those communities plagued by violence, often working overnight, Matthews said.
“ When you’re able to take dozens of impact players off the streets, it makes a huge difference,” Matthews said. “With gangs, whenever you have an organized network working toward a common cause, there’s a lot of collateral damage, retaliation, so to be able to diminish that, it’s key.”
State Police investigate every homicide in Massachusetts in conjunction with local police, except in the Commonwealth’s three largest cities: Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. Excluding those three cities, there were 64 homicides statewide last year, compared to 105 in 2011. Of those 64, 19 were domestic killings.
Homicide rates have dropped in most of the state’s heavily populated cities.
Boston had 58 homicides for the year, compared with 62 in 2011 and 74 in 2010, marking a third straight year with a decrease.
Springfield had 12 homicides last year, its lowest toll in a decade, and Brockton had six, the lowest since 2004. Worcester had nine homicides last year, one less than in 2010, according to authorities.
Holyoke had no homicides last year, a milestone that has not been achieved there in at least 25 years. The city of about 40,000 residents located 8 miles north of Springfield in Hampden County had averaged about four homicides a year since 1987.
“We don’t typically have high numbers, but one is too many,” said Police Chief James M. Neiswanger.
“The decline is a national trend, and Holyoke is fortunate to be one of those places where homicides have gone down,” he said. “Some of it is good police work. Some of it is the result of partnerships and bonds with the community and with the nonprofits, places like the Boys and Girls club.
“We want to keep our numbers as low as we can get them,” Neiswanger said.
Among counties, Essex experienced the largest drop, with 9 homicides last year, compared to 21 in 2011. In Plymouth County, homicides fell from 16 in 2011 to 9 last year, the lowest tally in at least seven years. District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said collaboration among local, state, and federal law enforcement officials drove the number down.
“The vast majority of these crimes are usually done by a small group of people. Understanding that drugs go hand in hand with guns and violence, removing those components from the street is important.”
‘ . . . Holyoke is fortunate to be one of those places where homicides have gone down.’
Law enforcement officials, including Cruz, have expressed concern that the Annie Dookhan drug lab scandal may undo the drop in violent crime as hundreds of people convicted of drug offenses stand to be freed. Dookhan is at the center of one of the largest law enforcement scandals in recent Massachusetts history and her alleged misdeeds may have an impact on tens of thousands of drug convictions and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Prosecutors allege she deliberately mishandled evidence she was supposed to analyze to determine whether it was a drug.
“Even though their drug offenses may go away because of Dookhan, lots of these individuals are incarcerated for assaults, and those convictions remain,” Cruz said. Law enforcement officials also point to improvements in trauma care that help critically wounded gunshot and stabbing victims survive, helping to drive down the number of homicides. There were 27 shootings or stabbings that “could have gone either way,” Matthews said, with the victims surviving.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, said that while the drop in homicides follows a national trend, it is important to look at the long-term pattern and the corrections that usually follow years with dips or surges.
“This is more of a correction than attributable to any one factor,” Fox said.
In the ‘80s, the rate of violent crime dipped, but was followed by a spike in the early ‘90s with crack cocaine fueling much of the violence. The rate dipped in the late ‘90s, then went up from 2000 to 2010. “The spike at the end of the decade is more of an aberration than anything else, and now we are going back to where it used to be at the end of the previous decade,” Fox said.Brian Ballou can be reached
Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.