PROVIDENCE – For someone who runs such a data-driven police department, Providence Police Chief Colonel Hugh Clements sounded like even he was questioning the crime numbers.
After an especially violent stretch in Rhode Island’s capital city that included an innocent woman being killed in a drive-by shooting, a mother getting attacked by a group of ATV and dirt bike riders, and a double homicide outside a local nightclub, Clements had a message to deliver to the City Council.
“Crime is down, believe it or not,” Clements told a skeptical council Tuesday night during an emergency meeting focused on public safety.
While the city’s own data show that overall violent crime is down slightly compared to 2020 and significantly compared to the five-year average, Clements said Providence is experiencing a trend that is “eerily consistent” both in the region and across the country: homicides and shootings are on the rise.
A combination of factors, including rising gun sales during the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officers in 2020, could be the reason many communities have seen a surge in shootings and homicides, according to Michael Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven.
Firearms sales certainly have soared in Rhode Island: During 2020, the number of background checks on residents who wanted to buy guns more than doubled over the previous year -- the second-highest percentage jump in the country.
Nationally, retailers sold nearly 23 million firearms in 2020, up from the previous record of 16.6 million in 2016, according to estimates from industry research firm Small Arms Analytics & Forecasting.
The pandemic itself has also been a major challenge for police, Lawlor said. In mid-sized cities, like Providence, New Haven, and Hartford, he said police departments are often effective at preventing violence by building relationships with community members and keeping tabs on the handful of people who are most likely to pull the trigger. The pandemic disrupted those interactions.
“All the face-to-face stuff came to a halt,” Lawlor said.
And while the data may tell different stories depending on the city, Clements is right that Providence isn’t alone, said Lawlor, who was member of the Connecticut legislature for more than two decades and served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2011. Many cities are experiencing the “exact same pattern” that Providence is seeing, he said.
“Something weird is happening, but it’s happening everywhere, so it’s not unique to Providence,” Lawlor said.
Each year, the FBI collects crime data from thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country and publishes the information. Although the FBI advises against ranking communities based on the numbers, those annual reports often lead to lists of the “safest” and “most dangerous” cities in the country. Some police departments, like Providence, publish weekly or monthly reports that track local crime trends in real time.
Although some cities around the country had more homicides before the COVID-19 pandemic, preliminary crime data published by the FBI shows that homicides rose by 25 percent from 2019 to 2020, while overall violent crime was up 3 percent.
In Providence’s case, the city had already seen 15 homicides in 2021 as of Aug. 8, up from six at the same point last year. Aggravated assaults with a firearm are up 28 percent year over year, from 57 in 2020 to 73 this year. Both are up compared to the city’s five-year averages as well.
Two comparably-sized New England cities, New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, are seeing similar increases.
New Haven, which is seeing year-over-year drops in sexual assaults, aggravated assaults, and robberies, was up to 17 homicides as of Aug. 1, compared to 12 at the same point in 2020, according to statistics published by the city. The city reported 66 aggravated assaulted with a firearm this year, compared to 61 last year.
Hartford was up to 23 homicides as of July 31, compared to 14 at the same time in 2020. Shootings were flat year over year, at 114 each. The city reported that overall crime was down about 8.4 percent compared to the same point last year.
In Massachusetts, a different story appears to be playing out. In Boston, the largest city in the region, shootings were down 22 percent compared to 2020, according to the city’s shooting dashboard. Springfield had 18 homicides in 2020, but has seen just eight this year, according to police department spokesman Ryan Walsh. And Worcester has had five homicides in 2021, compared to nine in 2020, according to Lieutenant Sean Murtha.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, Clements said the public animosity toward police since the Floyd killing in Minnesota has had a deeply negative impact on Providence. Without pointing at specific politicians, Clements said the department has experienced “lots of mixed messaging,” and it has hurt morale.
“We became demonized and villainized for something, quite frankly, we didn’t do in Providence,” Clements said.
In the wake of the violence in Providence, city officials have committed to adding more officers over the next two years, with one academy set to graduate in November. The department was down to 404 officers, with at least 30 who are out of the rotation for various reasons. Clements said the “bare minimum” the department should have is 450 officers.
Lawlor said he predicts that cities will see a decrease in homicides and shootings in the second half of 2021 and in 2022 as the pandemic comes to an end, tensions ease, and law enforcement can get back to street-level community policing.
In the meantime, he said, politicians, police unions, and community members should resist the temptation to overreact.
“You don’t want bad policies to emerge at a press conference,” Lawlor said.