As authorities continue to investigate a string of recent break-ins targeting Newton residents of Asian descent, city leaders are thinking about ways to prevent future home invasions, such as a unit within the police department that would conduct home security assessments for residents.
Newton Police Chief John Carmichael said he would like to create such a team and, along with Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, offered other suggestions for community members to improve security at their homes while taking questions about the ongoing investigation during a town-hall style Zoom meeting Thursday night.
“We’re very familiar with how people break into homes and the things that they are looking for, so there are things we could implement that could help, almost like a checklist where we could help you identify the things that could be causing more [break-ins],” he said.
Five house breaks were reported in the city between June 12 and July 12, and all were at the homes of residents of Asian descent. Police issued images of a suspect taken from surveillance footage but the person is wearing a mask covering the bottom half of their face. No arrests have been made.
About 300 people logged in for the meeting, Ryan noted toward the end. The meeting lasted more than three hours, concluding about 11:30 p.m., with dozens of residents raising questions about the investigation’s progress and what proactive measures they can take to better secure their neighborhoods.
The string of break-ins has left many Newton residents concerned, and that race may be a driving factor has raised further alarms. Carmichael said his department “realized the trend” after two homes were broken into the weekend following the first break-in last month.
“Rightfully, our Asian neighbors are scared and feeling targeted,” Fuller said.
“Having your home broken into is so traumatic, certainly under any circumstances, but adding in the layer of racism makes it beyond upsetting,” she added.
Break-ins are on the rise in Newton this year with 46 as of July 15, Fuller said during the meeting. Carmichael said there were 35 break-ins during the same time frame in 2019, and there were 19 reported at this point last year. Carmichael attributes the drop last year in part to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced people to spend more time at home.
Fuller encouraged residents to make connections with their neighbors and “watch each other’s backs.”
“We have to do our jobs as neighbors — meet the people you live next door to, the people who live across the street, exchange phone numbers, watch out for each other and take care of one another,” she said.
Carmichael said the items stolen from some of the homes include jewelry, cash, handbags, and family heirlooms. He said all of the break-ins occurred “with the families away for a short time.”
“It appears from the information that we know that this individual could likely have been casing homes and watching to see if somebody left the house, and then would approach the home and ring the doorbell or knock on the door quite loudly,” he said. “He also had some paperwork in his hand that might indicate he had a cover story [if somebody came to the door] ... to tell the resident that he was there looking to do something else, in order to cover up what he was actually doing.”
Earlier Thursday, Ryan said the break-ins this year have sown a “very real fear in the community” during a remote meeting of her office’s Anti-Hate Anti-Bias Task Force, which brings together law enforcement, clergy, lawmakers and advocates to hash out strategies for respond to and preventing hateful acts.
And investigators, she said, have heard that there may be more of such crimes beyond those that have been reported.
Ryan said that in four of the cases, the homeowners were gone for just a few hours at most.
“And in that time, there was a very forcible entry made to the house, and people covered a lot of ground and took a lot of things from the house,” Ryan said. “And managed to be out before the homeowners came back.”
She added that the crime spree may not be confined to the five reported cases.
“One of the concerns is, we have heard some talk that there may be other, unreported similar breaks,” Ryan said, adding that “having your house broken into is one of the most invasive crimes.” She didn’t provide specifics on the unreported cases.
Fuller also spoke during the meeting and said people of Asian descent across the region are feeling on edge.
“I think the AAPI community in general across Greater Boston is feeling very unsettled and unnerved right now,” Fuller said.
Carmichael Jr. said during the meeting that he had spoken earlier in the day with residents about the as-yet-unsolved house breaks.
“The fear of crime right now in the community is significant. It’s very real,” Carmichael said. “So it’s going to be a big challenge for us to be able to make sure that we’re partnering with members of the community and reassuring them all of the different things that we have in place that are kind of going on behind the scenes to make sure that they’re safe.”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.